Apple: Without passcodes, ‘impossible’ to unlock iPhones running iOS 8 or later

Apple says it would be burdensome — and mostly impossible — for it to unlock people’s iPhones upon the request of law enforcement.

In a legal filing this week, the iPhone maker answered a question posed by U.S. Magistrate Judge James Orenstein, who had been urged by federal prosecutors to force Apple to unlock an iPhone. Orenstein said last week that he would defer ruling until Apple let him know whether it’s feasible to bypass an iPhone’s passcode.

Here’s the meat of Apple’s response, which comes amid law enforcement officials’ growing frustration over tech companies’ increased privacy and security efforts:

In most cases now and in the future, the government’s requested order would be substantially burdensome, as it would be impossible to perform. For devices running iOS 8 or higher, Apple would not have the technical ability to do what the government requests—take possession of a password protected device from the government and extract unencrypted user data from that device for the government. Among the security features in iOS 8 is a feature that prevents anyone without the device’s passcode from accessing the device’s encrypted data. This includes Apple.

But in the case in question, which involves an iPhone running iOs 7, Apple said it “has the technical ability to extract certain categories of unencrypted data from a passcode locked iOS device” — but not email, calendar entries or third-party app data. The company also said it couldn’t say for sure whether it could actually produce the data requested without first examining the particular phone in question.

Apple also said similar future requests would be a pain — a slippery slope that could potentially take a lot of time and effort on its part. Not only would it take technical “man hours,” the company said in the filing, but it could also lead to requests for Apple employees to testify in cases. And in case you forgot, government: “Public sensitivity to issues regarding digital privacy and security is at an unprecedented level.”

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said repeatedly that he supports strong encryption and is against installing security backdoors in technology for government and law enforcement.

“You can’t have a back door in the software because you can’t have a back door that’s only for the good guys,” Cook reportedly said at the Wall Street Journal Digital Live technology conference earlier this week.

Meanwhile, some experts point out that there are unofficial ways for cops (and others) to access information stored on an iPhone.

“The iPhone is the hardest target, but in practice law enforcement can find a way in,” Nick Weaver, a security researcher at Berkeley’s International Computer Science Institute, told Wired recently. “There are three or four ways into the typical iPhone. It takes someone really paranoid to have closed all of them.”


Photo: Apple CEO Tim Cook introduces the iPhone 6s at a media event in San Francisco on Sept. 9, 2015. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)


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  • Harry Polizzi

    Apple should charge the government a $1,000 PER HOUR, PER EMPLOYEE as an Apple official MONITOR to break into iPhones with a court order. If Cote can grease the palm of her “monitor” then turn about is fair play. At least the Apple monitors will have some REAL expertise actually needed for the task, unlike that a*s*s kisser Bromwich.

  • tjwolf

    The title is wrong: It has nothing to do with the age of the phones but, instead, with the age of the OS. You even state it in the article itself.

    • Levi Sumagaysay

      Good point, thanks. I tweaked the headline.

    • levisu

      Good point. I tweaked the headline.

  • Since it’s already impossible for Apple to be honest with their customers, why would they want to cooperate with law enforcement? Oh, I see — when the phone is unlocked, even if the user erases all the phone history and browser history etc., the cops can go to the “logs” in settings that the “user” does not have permission to access, and thus the phone will testify against the owner in direct violation of the 5th Amendment. But who cares about Rights anyway?