Saturday, October 4, 2014

Why Apple's iPhone encryption won't stop NSA (or any other intelligence agency)

Recent news headlines have made a big deal of Apple encrypting more of the storage on their handsets, and claiming to not have a key. Depending on who you ask this is either a huge win for privacy, or a massive blow to intelligence collection and law enforcement capabilities. I'm going to try avoiding expressing any opinions of government policy here and focus on the technical details of what is and is not possible - and why disk encryption isn't as much of a major game-changer as people seem to think.

Matthew Green at Johns Hopkins wrote a very nice article on the subject recently, but there are a few points I feel it's worth going into more detail on.

The general case here is that of two people, Alice and Bob, communicating with iPhones while a third party, Eve, attempts to discover something about their communications.

First off, the changes in iOS 8 are encrypting data on disk. Voice calls, SMS, and Internet packets still cross the carrier's network in cleartext. These companies are legally required (by CALEA in the United States, and similar laws in other countries) to provide a means for law enforcement or intelligence to access this data.

In addition, if Eve can get within radio range of Alice or Bob, she can record the conversation off the air. Although the radio links are normally encrypted, many of these cryptosystems are weak and can be defeated in a reasonable amount of time by cryptanalysis. Numerous methods are available for executing man-in-the-middle attacks between handsets and cell towers, which can further enhance Eve's interception capabilities.

Second, if Eve is able to communicate with Alice or Bob's phone directly (via Wi-Fi, SMS, MITM of the radio link, MITM further upstream on the Internet, physical access to the USB port, or using spearphishing techniques to convince them to view a suitably crafted e-mail or website) she may be able to use an 0day exploit to gain code execution on the handset and bypass any/all encryption by reading the cleartext out of RAM while the handset is unlocked. Although this does require that Eve have a staff of skilled hackers to find an 0day, or deep pockets to buy one, when dealing with a nation/state level adversary this is hardly unrealistic.

Although this does not provide Eve with the ability to exfiltrate the device  encryption key (UID) directly, this is unnecessary if cleartext can be read directly. This is a case of the general trend we've been seeing for a while - encryption is no longer the weakest link, so attackers figure out ways to get around it rather than smash through.

Third, in many cases the contents of SMS/voice are not even required. If the police wish to geolocate the phone of a kidnapping victim (or a suspect) then triangulation via cell towers and the phone's GPS, using the existing e911 infrastructure, may be sufficient. If intelligence is attempting to perform contact tracing from a known target to other entities who might be of interest, then the "who called who when" metadata is of much more value than the contents of the calls.

There is only one situation where disk encryption is potentially useful: if Alice or Bob's phone falls into Eve's hands while locked and she wishes to extract information from it. In this narrow case, disk encryption does make it substantially more difficult, or even impossible, for Eve to recover the cleartext of the encrypted data.

Unfortunately for Alice and Bob, a well-equipped attacker has several options here (which may vary depending on exactly how Apple's implementation works; many of the details are not public).

If the Secure Enclave code is able to read the UID key, then it may be possible to exfiltrate the key using software-based methods. This could potentially be done by finding a vulnerability in the Secure Enclave (as was previously done with the TrustZone kernel on Qualcomm Android devices to unlock the bootloader). In addition, if Eve works for an intelligence agency, she could potentially send an NSL to Apple demanding that they write firmware, or sign an agency-provided image, to dump the UID off a handset.

In the extreme case, it might even be possible for Eve to compromise Apple's network and exfiltrate the certificate used for signing Secure Enclave images. (There is precedent for this sort of attack - the authors of Stuxnet appear to have stolen a driver-signing certificate from Realtek.)

If Apple did their job properly, however, the UID is completely inaccessible to software and is locked up in some kind of on-die hardware security module (HSM). This means that even if Eve is able to execute arbitrary code on the device while it is locked, she must bruteforce the passcode on the device itself - a very slow and time-consuming process.

In this case, an attacker may still be able to execute an invasive physical attack. By depackaging the SoC, etching or polishing down to the polysilicon layer, and looking at the surface of the die with an electron microscope the fuse bits can be located and read directly off the surface of the silicon.

E-fuse bits on polysilicon layer of an IC (National Semiconductor DMPAL16R). Left side and bottom right fuses are blown, upper right is conducting. (Note that this is a ~800nm process, easily readable with an optical microscope. The Apple A7 is made on a 28nm process and would require an electron microscope to read.) Photo by John McMaster, CC-BY
Since the key is physically burned into the IC, once power is removed from the phone there's no practical way for any kind of self-destruct to erase it. Although this would require a reasonably well-equipped attacker, I'm pretty confident based on my previous experience that I could do it myself, with equipment available to me at school, if I had a couple of phones to destructively analyze and a few tens of thousands of dollars to spend on lab time. This is pocket change for an intelligence agency.

Once the UID is extracted, and the encrypted disk contents dumped from the flash chips, an offline bruteforce using GPUs, FPGAs, or ASICs could be used to recover the key in a fairly short time. Some very rough numbers I ran recently suggest that an 6-character upper/lowercase alphanumeric SHA-1 password could be bruteforced in around 25 milliseconds (1.2 trillion guesses per second) by a 2-rack, 2500-chip FPGA cluster costing less than $250,000. Luckily, the iPhone uses an iterated key-derivation function which is substantially slower.

The key derivation function used on the iPhone takes approximately 50 milliseconds on the iPhone's CPU, which comes out to about 70 million clock cycles. Performance studies of AES on a Cortex-A8 show about 25 cycles per byte for encryption plus 236 cycles for the key schedule. The key schedule setup only has to be done once so if the key is 32 bytes then we have 800 cycles per iteration, or about 87,500 iterations.

It's hard to give exact performance numbers for AES bruteforcing on an FPGA without building a cracker, but if pipelined to one guess per clock cycle at 400 MHz (reasonable for a modern 28nm FPGA) an attacker could easily get around 4500 guesses per second per hash pipeline. Assuming at least two pipelines per FPGA, the proposed FPGA cluster would give 22.5 million guesses per second - sufficient to break a 6-character case-sensitive alphanumeric password in around half an hour. If we limit ourselves to lowercase letters and numbers only, it would only take 45 seconds instead of the five and a half years Apple claims bruteforcing on the phone would take. Even 8-character alphanumeric case-sensitive passwords could be within reach (about eight weeks on average, or faster if the password contains predictable patterns like dictionary words).


  1. Also, many countries can force you to hand over encryption keys to devices. The best encryption in the world won't save you from that.

    1. In the US in most cases it's considered a violation of your right to not self incriminate by forcing you to admit you know the password to a device.

  2. This is true but if you use a proper password with more than 8 characters including letters (uppercase and lowercase), numbers and symbols, then you aren't going to be cracking in anytime soon. In addition, why just mention Apple, Google is making similar claims for their upcoming Android L which will also be subject to every thing you just wrote.

  3. Apple's TouchID raises an interesting issue. While the police can't force you to give up an iPhone's ID number, they could force your hand onto the button. Courts may not look kindly on that later, but even then it'd be someone's word against the police as to what happened.

  4. you would think they’d be happy that Apple and Google are making it harder for foreign governments and criminals to break into people’s phones or company servers to steal your data.