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Apple makes it harder for police to unlock iPhones

A couple of months back, we talked about this mysterious standalone gadget that can crack iPhone and iPad passcodes in mere minutes. It’s called the GrayKey and it’s specifically marketed to law enforcement agencies and private investigation companies who are looking for a viable way to decrypt an iPhone.

Click here for our detailed look at Grayshift’s GrayKey.

Although the GrayKey’s price is out of reach for the average consumer, it is a relatively cheap investment for government agencies who are in need of an iPhone unlocking tool. In fact, the GrayKey is reportedly already in use in at least five states by five separate federal agencies.

But it looks like that hefty investment is going to be obsolete soon. Apple is set to include a new feature in future versions of iOS that will render iPhone cracking gadgets like the GrayKey worthless.

How does GrayKey work in the first place?

A Malwarebytes report suggests that once an iPhone is connected to the GrayKey,  it jailbreaks it, installs the hacking software then runs the cracking process on the device itself.

The specific exploit method is not known but with the speed the GrayKey cracks an iPhone’s passcode, it’s possible that it’s using a secret a zero-day flaw in Apple’s Secure Enclave in conjunction with brute-force techniques. Note: The Secure Enclave is a dedicated chip on iPhones and iPads that handles security and encryption.

According to estimates, a 4-digit passcode can be unlocked by GrayKey at around 6.5 minutes, 6 digits at 11, 8 digits at 92 days and a 10-digit passphrase at around 4,629 days (that’s still 12 years and 8 months!)

Apple already had an early “fix” for it

Although Apple still doesn’t know the specific security flaws that the GrayKey exploits, the company already included key changes in iOS 11.3 to make cracking attempts by these types of methods more difficult.

With the iOS 11.3 changes, an iPhone or iPad will save the last time a device has been unlocked (either by passcode, Touch ID or Face ID) or was connected to a computer.

If seven days have elapsed since the last time iOS saved any of these activities, the Lightning port will be entirely disabled.

This means if you have updated your gadget to the newest iOS update, you already have a bit of protection in place.

However, Apple is taking it a step further in a future version of iOS and this change will basically kill the GrayKey’s usability.

USB Restricted Mode

Already spotted in developer betas of iOS 11.4.1 and iOS 12, the GrayKey busting feature is called “USB Restricted Mode.”

Basically, this mode will deactivate all the data functions of an iPhone or iPad’s Lightning port if the device has not been unlocked in the past hour. This means that after an hour, the Lightning port will be limited to charging functions only.

This will significantly shorten the window the police and other law enforcement agencies could use now that cracking devices like the GrayKey will practically render them worthless.

But how about your legitimate Lightning port dependent accessories like speaker docks, storage devices, headphones and DACs? Well, it appears that the mode is optional and it can be turned off if needed.

Other reports are saying that the data restrictions will only apply to “newly connected” devices so your previously used accessories will likely still work even after the one-hour time limit has elapsed.

In response to the reports, Apple said that the new mode is a general security fix for all its customers and not a deliberate way to foil law enforcers.

“We’re constantly strengthening the security protections in every Apple product to help customers defend against hackers, identity thieves and intrusions into their personal data,” Apple said in an official statement. “We have the greatest respect for law enforcement, and we don’t design our security improvements to frustrate their efforts to do their jobs.”

There’s still no definite timeframe for the public release of USB Restricted Mode but we’re expecting it to be included in iOS 12.

How to secure your iPhone with a strong passcode

GrayKey hack or not, it’s always a good idea to secure your iOS gadget with a strong passcode.

Do the math on that and you’ll realize that a 4-digit code allows just 10,000 passcode combinations.

It’s also easy for someone to simply snoop behind your shoulders and see the simple combination you use to enter your passcode. And a relative or friend who knows you well might guess your four-digit passcode based on your personal information or another PIN you use a lot.

Thankfully, since iOS 9, Apple has expanded its passcode options. You can now choose between a four-digit numeric code, a six-digit numeric code, a custom numeric code, or a custom alphanumeric code.

These other options are definitely more secure than just the four-digit option.

Even a 5- or 6-digit PIN is exponentially safer than a 4-digit code – as long as it’s not 123456. From then on, the Lock Screen will show you the numeric keypad when it asks for your passcode.

For ultimate safety, I recommend a password that’s a combination of letters, numbers and symbols. Aim for at least eight characters.

Here’s how to change your iPhone or iPad passcode to a more secure one.

Go to Settings >> Touch ID & Passcode (Face ID & Passcode for the iPhone X) >> Tap Turn Passcode On >> Enter a six-digit passcode or tap Passcode Options and choose among the options we’ve listed above >> Enter your passcode again to confirm it and activate it.

Police are angry they’re being locked out of iPhones by this new move. Hear what Kim says about this law enforcement situation.

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