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iMessage Security, Encryption and Attachments

Thursday, November 15th, 2018

iMessage is undoubtedly one of the most popular instant messaging platforms for an obvious reason: it’s built in to iOS and ships with every iPhone by default. iMessage does not require complex setup, so the number of iMessage users is closely matching the number of iPhone users. Apple sells about 200 million iPhones every year, and the total number of iPhones sold is more than a billion. Unless you absolutely must chat with someone outside of Apple’s ecosystem (like those poor Android folks), you won’t need Skype, WhatsApp or Telegram. It’s also comforting to know that iMessage works everywhere around the world while most other messengers are oppressed in one or more countries.

But what about iMessage security? Is it safe to use if you’re concerned about your privacy? Is there a reason why countries such as China, Iran or Russia block other messengers but keep iMessage going? Is it safe from hackers? What about Law Enforcement? And what about Apple itself? It must have access to your messages to target the ads, right? Is it OK to send those private snapshots or share your location via iMessage?

There is no simple answer, but we’ll do our best to shed some light on that.

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iOS 12 Beta 5: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

The release of iOS 11.4.1 marked the introduction of USB restricted mode, a then-new protection scheme disabling USB data pins after one hour. The USB restricted mode was not invincible; in fact, one could circumvent protection by connecting the device to a $39 accessory. While a great improvement on itself, the new mode did not provide sufficient protection. We wished Apple maintained a list of “trusted” or previously connected accessories on the device, allowing only such devices to reset the timer. In this new iOS 12 beta, Apple makes attempts to further “improve” USB restricted mode, yet the quotes about “improving” the system are there on purpose.

We recently covered the whole story starting from iOS 11.3 and up to the then-current iOS 12 beta, but it looks the story is far from the end. I think Apple monitors media coverage including our blog, and takes a note on some of the readers’ comments in an attempt to find the right balance between security and convenience. We even suggested how they could possibly improve the new mode’s implementation, and… iOS 12 Beta 5 (just released) brings another surprise.

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USB Restricted Mode Inside Out

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

It’s been a lot of hype around the new Apple security measure (USB restricted mode) introduced in iOS 11.4.1. Today we’ll talk about how we tested the new mode, what are the implications, and what we like and dislike about it. If you are new to the topic, consider reading our blog articles first (in chronological order):

To make a long story short: apparently, Apple was unable to identify and patch vulnerabilities allowing to break passcodes. Instead, they got this idea to block USB data connection after a period of time, so no data transfer can even occur after a certain “inactivity” period (keep reading about the definition of “inactivity”). It is somehow similar to how Touch ID/Face ID expire from time to time, so you can only use the passcode if you did not unlock the device for a period of time. Same for USB now.

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Breaking Deeper Into iPhone Secrets

Wednesday, June 20th, 2018

iPhone protection becomes tougher with each iteration. The passcode is extremely hard to break, and it’s just the first layer of defense. Even if the device is unlocked or if you know the passcode, it is not that easy and sometimes impossible to access all the data stored on the device. This includes, for example, conversations in Signal, one of the most secure messengers. Apple did a very good job as a privacy and security advocate.

This is why we brought our attention to cloud acquisition. We pioneered iCloud backup extraction several years ago, and we are working hard to acquire more data from the cloud: from the standard categories available at www.icloud.com (such as contacts, notes, calendars, photos and more) to hidden records as call logs, Apple Maps places and routes, third-party application data stored on iCloud drive (not accessible by any other means), iCloud keychain (the real gem!), and recently Messages (with iOS 11.4, they can be synced too).

Cloud acquisition is not as easy as it sounds. First, you need the user’s credentials – Apple ID and password at very least, and often the second authentication factor. Additionally, for some categories (such as the keychain and messages), you’ll also need the passcode of one of the ‘trusted’ devices. But even having all of those, you will still face the undocumented iCloud protocols, encryption (usually based on well-known standard algorithms, but sometimes with custom modifications), different data storage formats, code obfuscation and hundreds of other issues. We learned how to fool Two-Factor Authentication and extract and the authentication tokens from desktops. We are playing “cat and mouse” with Apple while they are trying to lock iCloud accounts when detecting that our software is being used to access the data. We have to monitor Apple’s changes and updates almost 24/7, installing every single beta version of iOS.

iCloud acquisition gives fantastic results. In most cases, you do not need the device itself (it may be lost or forgotten, or thousands miles away). You can obtain deleted data that is not stored on any physical device anymore. You can obtain tons of valuable evidence from all the devices connected to the account.

But as always, there are some “buts”. Sorry for the long intro, and let’s proceed to what we have done about iPhone physical acquisition.

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iOS 11.4.1 Second Beta Extends USB Restricted Mode with Manual Activation

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

Thinking Apple is done with USB Restricted Mode? Not yet. They have at least one more deus ex machina to shake up the forensic community.

More than a month ago, we made a report iOS 11.4 to Disable USB Port After 7 Days: What It Means for Mobile Forensics. The feature was not included into the final release of iOS 11.4, but returned in a much different shape in iOS 11.4.1 beta (iOS 11.4.1 Beta: USB Restricted Mode Has Arrived). The feature is also part of the first iOS 12 beta introduced a a few days later.

Finally, Apple has officially confirmed the existence of USB Restricted Mode, and the law enforcement community is not happy about it. (Cops Are Predictably Pissed About Apple’s Plan to Turn Off USB Data Access on iPhones). Some sources speculated about LE being able to break into the phones without the warrant.

If that was not enough, Apple added insult to injury. Do you remember the S.O.S. mode we described in New Security Measures in iOS 11 and Their Forensic Implications?

I’ve got good news for you. Or bad news, depending on who you are. In the second beta of 11.4.1 released just days ago, activating the SOS mode enables USB restrictions, too. This feature was not present in the first 11.4.1 beta (and it is not part of any other version of iOS including iOS 12 beta). In all other versions of iOS, the SOS mode just disables Touch/Face ID. The SOS feature in iOS 11.4.1 beta 2 makes your iPhone behave exactly like if you did not unlock it for more than an hour, effectively blocking all USB communications until you unlock the device (with a passcode, as Touch ID/Face ID would be also disabled).

iCloud and iMessage Security Concerns

Thursday, June 14th, 2018

We also trust these companies in ways that we do not understand yet. How many of you trust Apple? No voting… Just me 🙂 Damn! OK. May I ask you a very good question. Trusting to do what? Trusting when they say: “iMessages are end-to-end encrypted”? I mean, with all of that massive security engineering, to make sure it’s as good as it can be, so they genuinely believe they’ve done that. I do, generally, they’re great people. But… people believe themselves they can defend themselves against the Russians. If the Russians specifically targeted Apple, it’s only they can defend themselves.Ian Levy, director at the GCHQ on anniversary of the foundation of the FIPR event that was held on 29/04/2018).

This is probably just a co-incident, but “the Russians” are concerned about iCloud security, too.

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Apple Probably Knows What You Did Last Summer

Tuesday, June 5th, 2018

“Significant Locations” are an important part of the evidence logged on iPhones. Forensic experts doing the acquisition will try accessing Significant Locations. At the same time, many iPhone users are completely unaware of the existence of this feature. What are Significant Locations, where are they stored, and how to extract them, and what value do they serve in investigations?

Privacy Issues

iOS 11 and iOS 12 after it supposedly come with a slew of privacy enhancements. When it comes to Significant Locations, what we see is quite the opposite. There is an unresolved privacy issue instead.

Speaking strictly of “significant locations”, iOS 10 and older versions used to retain this data no longer than 45 days. Older records would be purged from the device. In iOS 11.4, the current release, location data is kept for at least 120 days (or 4 months). Apple does not provide ANY information about how or when it collects your location data; moreover, there is no official statement about how this data is being used. The only article that we were able to discover is “Location Services & Privacy“. Have a look at the following quote:

Significant Locations – Your iPhone will keep track of places you have recently been, as well as how often and when you visited them, in order to learn places that are significant to you. This data is transmitted end-to-end encrypted between your iCloud connected devices and will not be shared without your consent. It will be used to provide you with personalized services, such as predictive traffic routing, and to build better Photos Memories.

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Apple Strikes Back: the iPhone Cracking Challenge

Friday, May 11th, 2018

We live in the era of mobile devices with full-disk encryption, dedicated security co-processors and multiple layers of security designed to prevent device exploitation. The recent generations of Apple mobile devices running iOS 10 and 11 are especially secure, effectively resisting experts’ efforts to extract evidence. Yet, several solutions are known to counter Apple’s security measures even in iOS 11 and even for the last-generation devices. It is not surprising that Apple comes up with counter measures to restrict the effectiveness and usability of such methods, particularly by disabling USB data connection in iOS 11.4 after prolonged inactivity periods (well, in fact it is still in question whether this feature will be available in new iOS version or not; it seems it is not ready yet, and may be delayed till iOS 12).

Today, we’ll discuss the main challenges of iOS forensics, look at some of the most interesting solutions available to law enforcement, and share our experience gaining access to some of the most securely protected evidence stored in Apple iOS devices. (more…)

Legal and Technical Implications of Chinese iCloud Operations

Tuesday, April 10th, 2018

On February 28, 2018, Apple has officially moved its Chinese iCloud operations and encryption keys to China. The reaction to this move from the media was overwhelmingly negative. The Verge, The Guardian, Reuters, Wired, and CNN among other Western media outlets expressed their concerns about the Chinese government potentially violating the human rights of its citizens. Politics aside, we will review Apple policies governing the Chinese accounts, and look into the technical implementation of Chinese iCloud operations. Let us see if the fears are substantiated.

The Fear of China

Even if the change only affects iCloud accounts registered in mainland China, there is no lack of publications bashing apple for complying with Chinese laws. Below are just a few stories from the top of the news feed.

Journalists express their concerns regarding the potential violation of Chinese users human rights. “In the past, if Chinese authorities wanted to access [Chinese] Apple’s user data, they had to go through an international legal process and comply with U.S. laws on user rights, according to Ronald Deibert, director of the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which studies the intersection of digital policy and human rights. “They will no longer have to do so if iCloud and cryptographic keys are located in China’s jurisdiction,” he told CNNMoney.” [CNN]

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Demystifying Advanced Logical Acquisition

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2018

We were attending the DFRWS EU forum in beautiful Florence, and held a workshop on iOS forensics. During the workshop, an attendee tweeted a photo of the first slide of our workshop, and the first response was from… one of our competitors. He said “Looking forward to the “Accessing a locked device” slide”. You can follow our conversation on Twitter, it is worth reading.

No, we cannot break the iPhone passcode. Still, sometimes we can get the data out of a locked device. The most important point is: we never keep our methods secret. We always provide full disclosure about what we do, how our software works, what the limitations are, and what exactly you can expect if you use this and that tool. Speaking of Apple iCloud, we even reveal technical information about Apple’s network and authentication protocols, data storage formats and encryption. If we cannot do something, we steer our customers to other companies (including competitors) who could help. Such companies include Oxygen Forensics (the provider of one of the best mobile forensic products) and Passware (the developer of excellent password cracking tools and our direct competitor).

Let’s start with “Logical acquisition”. We posted about it more than once, but it never hurts to go over it again. By “Logical acquisition”, vendors usually mean nothing more than making an iTunes-style backup of the phone, full stop.

Then, there is that “advanced logical” advertised by some forensic companies. There’s that “method 2” acquisition technique and things with similarly cryptic names. What is that all about?

I am not the one to tell you how other software works (not because I don’t know, but because I don’t feel it would be ethical), but I’ll share information on how we do it with our software: the methods we use, the limitations, and the expected outcome.

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