Effective Data Protection for Mobile Devices

With iOS 4 Apple introduced a new method for protecting the data stored in an iPhone, an iPad or an iPod when the device is lost or stolen and the user has locked the device with a passcode (usually a 4-digit PIN) [1]. Different categories of data are encrypted under different keys, which are arranged in a key hierarchy. Some of the keys in the hierarchy are derived from the user’s passcode. However, every key that is derived from the passcode is also derived from a hardware key, which is hardwired into the silicon of a “hardware encryption chip” and cannot be extracted from the device by a casual attacker. This means that an attacker who steals a mobile device, opens it, and extracts data encrypted under the passcode cannot mount an offline attack against the passcode. That is, the attacker cannot try passcodes at high speed to find the one that decrypts the data, because trying passcodes requires the hardware key.

But the protection provided by the hardware encryption key, at least in iOS 4 and 5, has been defeated [2] [3] [4]. An attacker who steals an iPhone does not need to open it. The attacker can exploit an OS vulnerability or a firmware vulnerability to run custom code on the device. The custom code can read the encrypted data and, although it cannot extract the hardware key, it can use it to mount an “offline” attack on the device itself. The practical effect of the hardware key is only to force the attacker to run the attack on the CPU of the device, which is relatively slow. But it only takes 40 minutes to try all 4-digit PINs [2].

Would the hardware encryption key provide effective protection if Apple succeeded in eliminating all vulnerabilities that make it possible to run custom code? (It does not seem to have eliminated them in iOS 6, used in the recently released iPhone 5 [5].) An attack would be more difficult, but probably still possible. The attacker would have to open the phone to read the contents of the flash memory. The attacker might be able to not just read but also modify the contents of the flash memory, and thus run custom code, which could then use the hardware key to mount an offline attack against the passcode. The attacker might even be able to probe the silicon of the hardware encryption chip and extract the hardware key. Nobody has claimed to have done any of these fancy attacks, but that’s because exploiting vulnerabilities is much easier.

In the white paper

we have proposed a data protection method for mobile devices that does not require a hardware key, or any tamper resistance, and is effective even if the attacker is able to run custom code on the device. The data is encrypted under a (symmetric) data encryption key that is entrusted to an online server provided by the mobile network operator, or by the mobile device manufacturer, or by the provider of the mobile operating system, or by an independent data protection service provider trusted by the user. (The key can also be split using Shamir’s secret sharing technique into n “portions” entrusted to n different servers, so that k portions are needed to reconstruct the key. For example, with n = 5 and k = 3, portions of the key can be distributed to 5 different servers, and any 3 of those portions can be used to reconstruct the key.)

The key, or the portions of a split key, are retrieved when the user authenticates to unlock the phone, with a PIN, an iris image taken by a camera carried by the device, or both. User authentication regenerates an RSA key pair which the device uses to authenticate to the server(s). When a PIN is used, it is not vulnerable to an offline attack by an attacker who tampers with the phone; and when an iris image is used, no biometric sample or template is stored anywhere.


[1] Apple. iOS: Understanding data protection. October 28, 2011.
[2] Vladimir Katalov. ElcomSoft Breaks iPhone Encryption, Offers Forensic Access to FileSystem Dumps. March 23, 2011.
[3] Andrey Belenko. Overcoming iOS Data Protection to Re-enable iPhone Forensics. 2011.
[4] Jean-Baptiste Bedrune and Jean Sigwald. iPhone data protection in depth.
[5] Emil Protalinski, The Next Web. The Apple iPhone 5 has reportedly been jailbroken. September 22, 2012.

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