The Security Ledger

Apple Urges iPhone Users to Upgrade to Latest iOS Amid Cellebrite Unlock Claims

In-brief: Apple is urging iPhone and iPad users to upgrade to the latest version of iOS amid published claims by Israeli firm Cellebrite that its engineers can unlock basically any iPhone model, including those running the new iOS 11.

Apple again finds itself at the center of controversy surrounding the ability to hack into iPhones to extract protected user information.

The company is urging iPhone users to upgrade their devices to the latest version of iOS amid claims by an Israeli mobile-device surveillance firm that its engineers can unlock virtually any iPhone model in the world. However, the Cupertino, Calif.-based company is remaining mum on what, if anything, it might do now or in the future to resolve the issue.

Citing anonymous sources, Forbes reported Monday that Cellebrite, based in Petah Tikva, Israel, is telling customers that its engineers already can bypass the security of devices running iOS 11, the latest OS released for Apple devices released just five months ago.

Apple in typically cagey fashion, has neither denounced nor supported Cellebrite’s claim; instead, it’s telling customers that the latest version of iOS 11, 11.2.6, will protect them. The company released the update—available for iPhone 5s and later, iPad Air and later, and iPod touch 6th generation—last week.

Not a security update

How that iteration of iOS 11 will protect users remains unclear, however. 11.2.6 is a minor update and does not include any new fixes aimed at security, instead addressing “a memory corruption issue” through “improved input validation,” according to Apple’s release notes. The update was meant to fix an identified character bug called “Telugu” that could cause issues for iOS devices, including causing an iPhone to crash.

Apple did not respond to our requests for comment Tuesday at the time of publication. Cellebrite declined to comment beyond what has already been published.

Cellebrite sells mobile-phone forensic tools and is best known for helping law-enforcement agencies worldwide get past protections such as screen-lock codes and encryption that users employ to keep what’s on their devices private.

The company mainly does this through a product called Advanced Unlocking and Extraction Services, which can “empower forensics practitioners to overcome sophisticated technological barriers and we can determine or disable the PIN, pattern or passcode screen lock on the latest Apple iOS and Android devices including Alcatel, Google Nexus, HTC, Huawei, LG, Motorola, Samsung, and ZTE,” according to the company’s website.

Mobile phones can be tracked even when GPS and WiFi have been disabled, researchers have shown.

Indeed, these types of mobile-forensic services are crucial to agencies interested in extracting information from devices of suspected criminals to gather evidence in their cases against them. However, their use is not without controversy or pushback from Apple and other stakeholders concerned about mobile-device and user privacy and security.

Forensics versus user privacy

One notable case for which Cellebrite’s services were tapped was in 2016 when FBI reportedly used the firm to help it get past the encryption on the iPhone used by one of the shooters in a deadly attack in December of 2015 in San Bernadino, Calif.

In that case, Apple notoriously fought a judge’s order to help the feds hack the iPhone 5c of Syed Rizwan Farook—who died in a shootout with police–in a very public debate that called into question of whether such “legal” phone hacking with jeopardize the security and privacy of mobile devices and their owners.

Cellebrite, a subsidiary of Japan’s Sun Corp., currently offers Advanced Unlocking and Extraction services for iPhone, iPad, iPad mini, iPad Pro and iPod touch devices running iOS 5 to iOS 11, which theoretically includes even the latest iteration of iOS 11.

It appears that even iPhone X, the newest version of Apple’s flagship smartphone introduced last September, is not immune to Cellebrite’s forensic capabilities. Forbes also reported that the Department of Home Security successfully mined data from an iPhone X in November, most likely using Cellebrite technology.

[See also: EFF Seeks Right to Jailbreak Alexa, Voice Assistants]

Still, Apple did try to keep in mind user privacy and security when it released the original version of iOS 11—and was applauded publicly for its efforts by Cellebrite competitor ElcomSoft. In a blog post, the company outlined a number of new technologies in the software that make it more challenging for forensic experts to crack the system’s user protections.