updated 01:55 pm EDT, Fri May 10, 2013
Agencies stymied by locked-down operating system
Apple is receiving so many requests from police agencies looking to decrypt seized iPhones that the company has started a waiting list, CNET reports. In an example exposed by court documents, the ATF is said to have wanted to break through the encryption of an iPhone 4S owned by a Kentucky man accused of distributing crack cocaine. The agency "contacted Apple to obtain assistance in unlocking the device," according to US District Judge Karen Caldwell, but was "placed on a waiting list by the company."
A search warrant affidavit organized by ATF agent Rob Maynard elaborates that for almost three months last summer he "attempted to locate a local, state, or federal law enforcement agency with the forensic capabilities to unlock" a 4S, without success. Turning to Apple, Maynard says that Apple legal specialist Joann Chang told them there would be a minimum seven-week delay. In the end Maynard waited at least four months.
Chang is said to have explained Apple's data-dumping process, pointing out that "once the Apple analyst bypasses the passcode, the data will be downloaded onto a USB external drive" for delivery to the ATF. It's unknown how Apple is breaking through iPhone encryption; while the company may simply be better at it than government agencies, it could also have faster decryption hardware, or even a secret backdoor that lets it bypass encryption entirely.
The amount of time it takes to brute force an iPhone's PIN varies. That can be as little as 20 to 40 minutes for a four-digit number, but a six-digit passcode stretches the maximum to 22 hours. A nine-digit PIN can require up to two and a half years, and 10 digits can take as much as 25 years.
The DEA has also complained about being unable to access content on Apple devices. Specifically the agency says it has had trouble accessing iMessage exchanges, since those exchanges are likewise encrypted.