iOS encryption is impossible to crack by NSA's standards

The combination of security methods built into Apple's iOS mobile operating system make it practically impossible to crack, according to the National Security Agency's standards, reports Technology Review.

The security built into iOS is so effective for a number of reasons, including the fact that its user-friendly design makes it easy for even not-so-tech savvy consumers to use encryption on their phones. Apple's security architecture uses the Advanced Encryption Standard algorithm (AES), which is a data-scrambling system first published in 1998. It was adopted as a U.S. government standard in 2001, and more than a decade later, it is considered unbreakable. Technology Review points out that "the algorithm is so strong that no computer imaginable for the foreseeable future - even a quantum computer - would be able to crack a truly random 256-bit AES key.

The AES key used in every iOS device "is unique to each device and is not recorded by Apple or any of its suppliers," reads a security white paper from Apple. When iOS devices are turned off, the encryption key in the computer's accessible memory is erased, so someone attempting to break into an iOS device would have to try all possible keys, which is the task considered impossible by the NSA.

It wasn't always like this, of course. On the original iPhone, every mobile app made by Apple ran with root privileges, giving hackers huge opportunities to exploit bugs in the apps and take over the phone. This design flaw was fixed in January 2008, after which Apple began investing heavily in iOS security.

Even more details on the security of iOS can be read at Technology Review.

Source: Technology Review

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33 Comments

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Hey, you can't hack my computer. All the information is encrypted with 256 bit AES.

*whispers to friend "they'll never guess my password is my birthday"

Go on and continue to tell me how secure an iPhone is. Please, I beg you since most smartphone owners are dumber than a box of rocks and think their anniversary, birthday, graduation date, pets name, kids name, or pizza is a foolproof password.

Anyone remember when YouPorn had all their passwords and logins released? Wasn't the most common password 'password1234'. Yeah, smart people we have on this planet these days. If aliens came down and gave us some insane quantum 8192-bit salted from another dimension encryption it wouldn't be sh** when the password is 'fluffy'.

Totally agree. nEducation and password complexity validation has been a battle for years and will be until everyone understands that easy isn't always safe. I had a chuckle at that "fluffy" because it's the type of password my mom would use before I forced her to make it more like fluffy65OFF99on...

KCRic said,
Hey, you can't hack my computer. All the information is encrypted with 256 bit AES.

*whispers to friend "they'll never guess my password is my birthday"

Go on and continue to tell me how secure an iPhone is. Please, I beg you since most smartphone owners are dumber than a box of rocks and think their anniversary, birthday, graduation date, pets name, kids name, or pizza is a foolproof password.

Anyone remember when YouPorn had all their passwords and logins released? Wasn't the most common password 'password1234'. Yeah, smart people we have on this planet these days. If aliens came down and gave us some insane quantum 8192-bit salted from another dimension encryption it wouldn't be sh** when the password is 'fluffy'.

Interesting. I do not believe that any serious party these days would rely on land/GSM/WCDMA/LTE/satellite/whatever communication for sensitive exchange as any of these is easily (or not so easily) intercepted and monitored (either with the consent of the operator or otherwise). If the NSA is unable to decrypt in real-time (or within reasonable operational limits) any exchange between two computers over the Internet though it would be a very a serious gap in its SIGINT capabilities.

Oh yeah? That's a great way to spin a pro-Apple story - as they are the only ones using AES which has been out there for ages.

Also, as to whether or not the NSA can crack AES - the jury is still out on this one, e.g. read:
http://www.forbes.com/sites/an...ck-worlds-strongest-crypto/

Also don't forget that AES is a NIST standard. Do you honestly believe the US government is going to officialise an encryption standard it cannot itself break? What about all those terrorists having P2P AES-encrypted phone calls? Are the simply out of reach. My guess is - not. I hope not anyway.

Breach said,
Also, as to whether or not the NSA can crack AES - the jury is still out on this one, e.g. read: <snip>
Also don't forget that AES is a NIST standard. Do you honestly believe the US government is going to officialise an encryption standard it cannot itself break? What about all those terrorists having P2P AES-encrypted phone calls? Are the simply out of reach. My guess is - not. I hope not anyway.

My guess - most likely. AES (being Rijndael) was invented by Belgians rather than US, and officialised after a five year review process. Also, AES and the likes are open for anyone to review, study, implement and take a crack at (according to Kerckhoffs's principle).
It is futile to try and crack nearly any serious encryption these days. Those phone calls could be way easier reached by some cell station exploit, for example. Though it's hard to predict them happening before they happen, more intel is needed before there's even a chance at crypto.

NSA can crack ANYTHING out today... But hey we gotta go with what they say or else we wear tin foil hats. At least till a R is president then it will be all his fault.

I thought the headline was funny it sounds like someone said
hey you can't hack my computer and then whispers quietly out of the corner
of their mouth.. "according to my standards"

"On the original iPhone, every mobile app made by Apple ran with root privileges, giving hackers huge opportunities to exploit bugs in the apps and take over the phone."

This sentence shows the real problem in security in general... It's like an architect designing a building without any form of fire prevention or control, or an engineer building a cruise ship without a thought given to the catastrophic possibility that the ship may one day be sinking with passengers on board. It's as if Apple completely ignored even the simplest concepts of computer security, when in 2007 and 2008, these were already big issues.

Apple may have invested heavily in iOS sec, but how many gaping holes did they leave open because they have little imagination and absolutely no foresight?

A real story on iOS sec would detail a paradigm change at Apple that lead to innovating security instead of just taking the preliminary and basic measures of implementing encryption.

This has nothing to do with Apple, all government laptops are encrypted with AES 256 now as well. As well as corporate laptops for many companies. Apple didn't invent encryption on the phone, nor were they the first to use it.

iPhone data at rest encryption and giving apps root access are two disparate topics. One is the security of the data when not being accessed by the OS, and one is the security of the OS itself. Why are you treating them as one and the same?

Wait, so the NSA cant crack the iPhone, but a 99¢ iPhone App can ?
( i forget the actual app, but iOS has been cracked already at that competition that awards the victors the cracked device, i forget the name of it )

Either important information of the said "combination of security methods" has been omitted - because a single algorithm (which, I might add, is being used by nearly any sane developer these days) doesn't define security at all...
Or, sorry, Neowin, this article here is pure fanbois jacking off by taking things out of context.

People who know even a bit about crypto will laugh at this statement as it is. DES was also considered impossible to crack. Guess what happened, and in the most shameful way possible (see Cracking DES book for that, very interesting read).

Nobody bothers to crack AES. Nobody even bothers to crack any cipher, well knowing the futilily, with exception being cryptography scientists, because it's part of their job to keep up with increasing speeds, parallelism, where applicable, and new solutions to the underlying problems. Yes, AES is strong, as of now wide enough quantum computers (a matter of time) will only be able to drop its key size twice (so 256 bits becomes 128) - a very steep jump, but still millions of light years away from practical.

Hacking happens thanks to software and/or hardware exploits - that take the key (not find it) or simply find a way to access data without the key, without ever attacking algorithms themselves. Not that I'd want to say iOS sucks at being secured, but without any technical info, let's see how it fares in next Pwn2Own, for example, which now has taken its attention to mobiles, too, quite possible that exactly because of such claims.

Really? I thought when quantum computers came out all hell was going to break loose from all the algorithms being cracked. I didn't know AES would be quantum-computer proof, that's cool.

Tekkerson said,
Really? I thought when quantum computers came out all hell was going to break loose from all the algorithms being cracked. I didn't know AES would be quantum-computer proof, that's cool.

Quantum computing can easily be used to break algorithms based on the difficulty of the integer factorization problem, which AES is not. AES isn't quantum computer proof, but it should be a bit more difficult.

The 256-bit AES encryption used here would be as easily broken as 128-bit AES encryption is broken by a simple brute force approach, if you could use a quantum computer.

Shor's algorithm and Grover's algorithm are pretty amazing.

rfirth said,

Quantum computing can easily be used to break algorithms based on the difficulty of the integer factorization problem, which AES is not. AES isn't quantum computer proof, but it should be a bit more difficult.

The 256-bit AES encryption used here would be as easily broken as 128-bit AES encryption is broken by a simple brute force approach, if you could use a quantum computer.

Shor's algorithm and Grover's algorithm are pretty amazing.

Agreed. Quantum computing would still have to 'think' in order to crack AES however, not very much.

Since the principle of quantum computing is basically knowing every answer to a given scenario all at once. The easiest way to understand this is that all particles exist in every state possible until effected from an outside observer (eg. human). At which point the particle is forced to settle into a final state. So instead of knowing only 1 or 0 it knows both at the same time. With a regular computer the processor only knows that the answer must be 1 or 0 and must try every combination possible in order to figure out the key. The quantum computer exists as the combination already and must settle in that state.

Quantum mechanics is some seriously twisted stuff that half the time makes no sense and has no right/wrong answer. Things like quantum entanglement (aka. Einsteins 'spooky action at a distance') boggle the mind. Of course current processors utilize quantum mechanics. Electron tunneling is both beneficial and very detrimental in the technology world.

MASTER260 said,
I thought the NSA were breaking AES...

http://www.theinquirer.net/inq...2435/aes-encryption-cracked

People have been cracking weak AES passwords for a while. But the best way to break AES encryption is not to try. Instead, use another way to hack into the equipment (and root it!), use a real hacking tool, I don't know, like a .pdf file - then it makes needing to break the encryption irrelevant, as you already have full control of the device, and it's data.

iOS security in itself is not that great - the OS is generally rooted as soon as, or even before it's released. AES (not made by Apple) is pretty secure though if using a secure password.

bkellner said,

But the best way to break AES encryption is not to try. Instead, use another way to hack into the equipment.

Agreed, this can be demonstrated with WPS on Routers protected with WPA2, I don't need to brute force the encrypted key when you have left the backdoor open for me (WPS).

TheReaperMan said,
They do not need to hack or crack it. they just use there back door and gain complete access in 2 seconds(tin foil hat time)

yea, i thought that the NSA had a key to all android, ios, windows, etc... encryption, so it's not a big deal if they can crack them or not, they don't need to!

Buttus said,

yea, i thought that the NSA had a key to all android, ios, windows, etc... encryption, so it's not a big deal if they can crack them or not, they don't need to!

How would a master key even work with asymmetric key encryption? That sort of undermines its purpose...

Gaara sama said,
its funny how apple challenge Hacker , i like how apple say that considered impossible by the NSA lol ...

Apple didn't say that; Technology Review did.

Kind of a silly headline. This isn't really an article about iOS encryption... this is an article about the security of AES encryption... and that news is old as dirt.


the algorithm is so strong that no computer imaginable for the foreseeable future - even a quantum computer - would be able to crack a truly random 256-bit AES key

Too bad the keys used aren't truly random


When iOS devices are turned off, the encryption key in the computer's accessible memory is erased, so someone attempting to break into an iOS device would have to try all possible keys, which is the task considered impossible by the NSA.

How does this help if the device hasn't been turned off? I'm speaking from a position of ignorance here, but that sounds like a potential hole to exploit... or journalism/marketing oversimplification.

Edited by rfirth, Aug 13 2012, 9:53pm :

rfirth said,
Kind of a silly headline. This isn't really an article about iOS encryption... this is an article about the security of AES encryption... and that news is old as dirt.

Too bad the keys used aren't truly random

How does this help if the device hasn't been turned off? I'm speaking from a position of ignorance here, but that sounds like a potential hole to exploit... or journalism/marketing oversimplification.

I agreed with most of what you said there, people just don't realize that computers cannot generate "truly random" keys, this has only been accomplished using tools to measure the atomic break down.

rfirth said,
Kind of a silly headline. This isn't really an article about iOS encryption... this is an article about the security of AES encryption... and that news is old as dirt.

To be fair, AES is only as good as its implementation. As you point out, there's a clear avenue of attack on iOS with regards to where the AES keys are stored. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, but that does seriously narrow down the avenues of attack and as time goes on, Apple will (probably) get it more securely locked down.

Its a bit like how RSA has been used on the 360, PS3 and Wii to secure its contents but Nintendo's implementation was so poor that it was possible to brute-force it at one point.
Similarly, the PS3 was quite famously hacked because, even though it used an "unbreakable" encryption scheme (Although I'm unsure as to which scheme it used) due to the way that Sony implemented it, it was possible to reverse the private keys making the whole thing more or less worthless. Luckily for Sony, they were able to redo their entire security system in a major update.

The story is a cover for 'We can crack the encryption with minimal efforts, but want people thinking we cannot crack it.'

Ask yourself 'why would they say they could or could not crack encryption on any particular device?'

rfirth said,
Kind of a silly headline. This isn't really an article about iOS encryption... this is an article about the security of AES encryption... and that news is old as dirt.

Too bad the keys used aren't truly random

How does this help if the device hasn't been turned off? I'm speaking from a position of ignorance here, but that sounds like a potential hole to exploit... or journalism/marketing oversimplification.