iOS 12: Blocking GrayKey

January 22, 2019

On September 17, Apple publicly released their iOS 12 update for the iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch. The updates most notable features include: improved device performance; Facetime with up to 32 people at once; and augmented reality capabilities. As usual, Apple also updated the iPhones security. However, iOS 12’s product page gives little detail on specifics along with the following policy statement, “Apple believes privacy is a fundamental human right, which is why iOS has always been designed with built-in encryption, on-device intelligence, and other tools that let you share what you want on your terms.”

On October 24, just six weeks after the release of iOS 12, Apple’s security improvements became apparent as several news outlets reported that GrayKey no longer functioned on updated iOS 12 iPhones. In early 2018, Grayshift, an Atlanta based company created GrayKey, a program that uses exploits in the iPhone’s software in order to circumvent the iPhone’s passcode.

GrayKey is sold exclusively to law enforcement agencies and is available in two configurations priced at $15,000 and $30,000. The main differences between the two configurations is that the $15,000 model requires a constant internet connection and has a limit on the number of iPhones it unlocks. While, the $30,000 configuration has neither restriction. In comparison historic cost in hacking the iPhone passcode, GrayKey is a complete bargain for law enforcement agencies.

In 2016, law enforcement created the market for bypassing the iPhone’s security following the mass shooting in the 2015 San Bernardino, California terrorist attack. The FBI attempted to force Apple to create a tool for law enforcement to bypass the iPhone’s passcode. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, refused to comply with the request due to concerns of the potential misuse of such a tool on the public. Cook stated, “To invent what they want me to invent… puts millions of people at risk.” The FBI ultimately sued Apple to force the company’s compliance, but later dropped the lawsuit after finding a third-party that was capable of hacking the iPhone’s passcode. In the end, the FBI paid $1.3 million dollars to access the San Bernardino terrorist’s iPhone.

Currently, GrayKey is popular product across various law enforcement agencies across the country. An investigation into GrayShift revealed that among the company’s list of clients include the State Department, Drug Enforcement Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S. Secret Service, several regional and state police forces, and police forces in the UK.

With so many government agencies invested in GrayKey, iOS 12 likely represent only a temporary halt in accessing locked iPhones. Although passcode cracks are relatively recent in the iPhone’s history, general hacks to the platform date back to the iPhone’s first generation and still continue today. Add the massive economic incentive and government support, it is only a matter of time before GrayShift or some other third-party succeeds in defeating iOS 12’s passcode security. Despite the benefit hacking tools provides law enforcement, their existence alone undermines the privacy and security of not just the American public. Today, cellphones are arguably an individual’s most intimate possessions, given that it contains so much personal information, through access to ones: messages, locations visited, online browsing history, pictures, and social network and finance accounts. With tens of millions of iPhone owners around the world, many depend on the iPhone’s security to keep this information protected.

Christopher Yarnell, 12 November 2018