Russia’s ElcomSoft breaks iPhone iOS4 encryption, offers forensic access to file system dumps

ElcomSoft Co. Ltd. enables enhanced and near-instant forensic access to encrypted information stored in iPhone devices, and updates Elcomsoft Phone Password Breaker with tools that can access protected file system dumps extracted from iPhone devices, even if the data is hardware-encrypted by iOS 4.

While iPhone backups store a lot of information about the usage of an iPhone device, they don’t have everything. Forensic wise, dumping the contents of the physical device is the only proper way to handle an investigation. A decrypted dump of the file system can be analyzed by certified, highly advanced forensic tools such as Guidance EnCase.

“This time around it’s not about iPhone backups”, says Vladimir Katalov, ElcomSoft CEO, in the press release. “Backups created with iTunes software already contain a lot of data, but not quite everything that’s being stored or cached in iPhone devices. In contrast, we were able to break into the heart of iPhone data encryption, providing our customers with full access to all information stored in iPhone devices running iOS 4.”

“Mobile forensic specialists are well-aware of the amount of valuable information stored in these devices. Before our discovery, there was no way to get full access to all of that data”, he continues. “We are responsible citizens, and we don’t want this technology to fall into the wrong hands. Therefore, we made a firm decision to limit access to this functionality to law enforcement, forensic and intelligence organizations and select government agencies”.

Users of Apple iPhone devices accumulate huge amounts of highly sensitive information stored in their smartphones. Historical geolocation data, viewed Google maps and routes, Web browsing history and call logs, pictures, email and SMS messages, including deleted ones, usernames, passwords, and nearly everything typed on the iPhone is being cached by the device. Some of that information is available in iPhone backups made with Apple iTunes software. However, the amount of information that can be extracted from phone backups is naturally limited.

The amount and sensitive nature of information being stored in iPhone devices called for adequate protection. Apple responded by introducing a feature called Data Protection with the release of iOS 4. The new system release implemented hardware-based encryption in all devices starting with iPhone 3GS and select subsequent models, including iPhone 4, iPhone 3GS, both models of iPad and last generations of iPod Touch. The feature effectively enabled encryption of all user data stored on the device. Using an industry-standard AES-256 protection, the content of iPhone devices was considered to have adequate protection against even the best equipped intruders, including forensic analysts and law enforcement agencies.

Technically, each iPhone device uses a set of hardware-dependent encryption keys as well as data wipe keys buried securely in iPhone’s protected storage area. If a data wipe key is lost or destroyed, all data stored in the iPhone is rendered inaccessible and, essentially, useless. If, however, those keys are extracted from the device, it becomes possible to make forensic analysis of the iPhone device. ElcomSoft shares some of the technical details on its blog here.

ElcomSoft researchers were able to develop a toolkit to not only extract all relevant encryption keys from iPhone devices running iOS 4, but to make use of those keys to decrypt iPhone file system dumps. This in turn can provide enhanced forensic access to all information stored in iPhone devices, even if the device is passcode-protected.

This enhanced functionality offers access to much more information than is stored in iPhone backups. In fact, ElcomSoft believes that its new discovery opens access to too much information of a highly sensitive nature. Due to the nature of data being available to analysts using the new toolkit, ElcomSoft restrict the use of its software to established law enforcement, intelligence and forensic organizations as well as select government agencies.

Elcomsoft Phone Password Breaker provides forensic access to encrypted information stored in popular Apple and BlackBerry devices, decrypting all types of information including SMS and email messages, call history, contacts and organizer data, Web browsing history, voicemail and email accounts and settings. The tool can decrypt password-protected iPhone and BlackBerry backups or provide forensic access to encrypted iPhone file system dumps. Access to enhanced iPhone memory dump decryption functionality is limited to forensic, law enforcement, and select government agencies.

Founded in 1990, ElcomSoft Co. Ltd. develops state-of-the-art computer forensics tools, provides computer forensics training and computer evidence consulting services. Since 1997, ElcomSoft has been providing support to businesses, law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies. ElcomSoft tools are used by most of the Fortune 500 corporations, multiple branches of the military all over the world, foreign governments, and all major accounting firms. ElcomSoft and its officers are members of the Russian Cryptology Association. ElcomSoft is a Microsoft Gold Certified Partner and an Intel Software Partner.

Source: ElcomSoft Co. Ltd.

MacDailyNews Note: Elcomsoft’s method only works long as there’s physical access to the actual iPhone.


  1. This is something I hope apple addresses in the near future, and don’t think it is necessarily an immediate concern.

    Nonetheless, this is far more serious than location-gate. Even though it requires physical access… a mobile device like a phone can be acquired in any number of ways. Even an iphone backup is a liability to an extent.

      1. If the encryption is hard enough it will take so long to crack it that I will have an iPhone 15G by that point. The only other recourse to cut down the time are exponential leaps in processing power. But again, a long amount of time is still going to be involved as so to make most data so outdated it is pretty much useless.

    1. Believe when I tell you that government and police agencies will crack the encryption on any digital device. There is little that Apple can do if someone has the money and will to crack their code. And you can bet that if Apple were to rush out a new encryption scheme, this company or another would begin cracking it the very same day. Encryption of consumer electronics devices is meant to keep only the great unwashed in the dark, not policing and investigative arms of governments. Of course the bad guys will obtain this software too; it’s only a matter of time.

            1. Obviously you didn’t watch 60 Minutes this week (guess what, it’s still availble on your iPad), the NSA isn’t using quantum computing, it’s using incompetent computing. What a friggin waste of tax dollars that place is.

        1. if i were at the NSA… i would never tell the public if i could… Just cause they publicly state they can’t, doesn’t mean they can’t.

          and if i remember right, a few years back… PGP could be cracked. there was forensic software that could break it.
          and then there is blacknet in 1995.

          odds are its secure/safe with a long enough key, but to think that it is impossible..
          if a few college kids were able to break a 384 bit key in 3 months in 1995, computing power has increased a little since then. and so has the minds trying to break it.

          you can read about the 426bit and the 384bit crackage here.
          and remember, the question in the FAQ is “publicly”

          and note the $100 “reward” for breaking it… for $100 i’ll just beat the passphrase out of the guy, not going to waste time trying to crack it. 😉

          1. I believe all encryption is crackable eventually. It plainly just comes down to how much time it takes to crack it. so really, the goal is that the data remains encrypted for as long as security serves a purpose.

          2. Agree with everything poated here but would like to add that the breaking of PGO and alo sucesses thus far aginst RSA have beem dictionary and rainbow attacks. Basically “guesses” using complex algorithms.

            A strong key comprised of a truly random number using cipher block chaining and a salt value for each block of data all but eliminates the chances of succeas using these methods. You force the attacker into a position of having to try every combination.

            With the exception of 40-bit DES cracking all crypto cracking the past few years has relied on the passphrase as the weak link.

      1. The problem with selling this stuff to friendly nations is that friendly nations come and go. Examples: Iran, Iraq, South Vietnam, Lybia, …, just to name a few. Imagine governments acquiring those tools, while they have favored nation status, then become rogue states.

  2. There is little to do to fix this. as long as the key is in the device, or derived from data that can be obtained from the device the encryption layer can be removed.

    Unless you want to start entering a 21+ digit password when you start your phone or good biometrics become cheaper its really not going to get better. 🙂

  3. Yeah, like anyone would trust ANY Russian entity to know the difference between “law enforcement” a “government agency” and “criminal networks”.

    1. Won’t be any different here in the US if the US government defaults, loses currency reserve status, and can’t borrow money to fund the infinite national debt. The rich will have to pay for protection, the rest will suffer. Lawlessness, corruption, absence of social nets, and widespread suffering will be the norm.

      1. I think you’re confusing many such sci-fi stories with reality. The inevitability is in the federal government getting severely scaled back, long before this happens. Politicians don’t like it, are fighting it tooth and nail, but Medicare & Social Security are in their death throws. Once they are gone, the financial situation will look a lot better.

        The middle class still holds the power in the US, they are just asleep, drowsy or indifferent at the moment. Once someone is able to package the message that we don’t need R’s & D’s, their agendas, more time ad nauseum invested into their talking points, and puts a viable face on the movement, we’re off to the races again.

        You’ll see this happen here about a hundred years before Europe, Russia or Asia can get their acts together and put themselves in a position to drive innovation in the same ways as the US. Its just not in their DNA, and genetic engineering has yet to advance enough to trump hundreds of years of history.

        1. “Once they are gone, the financial situation will look a lot better.” If by that you mean that millions of people will be thrown into abject poverty and unable to obtain any type of medical care, then I suppose things will be “better.”

          The middle class of the 1950’s and 1960’s is mostly gone. It is now largely a middle class gap, and that socioeconomic shift is responsible for much of the current fiscal challenges in the U.S. The rest of the problem is associated with the failure of Congress to adapt Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid over the past few decades, as well as grossly excessive spending on the U.S. military.

          The genetics of the human race have not changed substantially in the past few hundred years since our ancestors immigrated to the New World from Europe and other locations. I doubt that human genetic composition has changed that much in the 20,000 years or so since people migrated over the land bridge from Asia. You obviously know very little about genetics. In my opinion, your entire post is lacking in substance.

  4. I believe that this is illegal…in the U.S. Of course, that doesn’t stop people from engaging in this type of activity in the U.S. or elsewhere.

    Wouldn’t it be ironic if ElcomSoft forensics tools were actually trojans infiltrating Fortune 500 companies, governments, and military organizations…

  5. So MDN, what exactly was the point of reprinting a PR release from a Russian (mafia) company?
    There is no context here. Has this firm ever done anything of note related to Apple? Are we to believe every claim they make, or not?

  6. “we made a firm decision to limit access to this functionality to law enforcement, forensic and intelligence organizations and select government agencies …”

    Uh huh, to high bidders like Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Libya, Congo, Peru, Venzuela, Cuba, China … perhaps?

    1. Right. Someone with such access will eventually sell it. That’s why our privacy needs protection. Those who sacrifice liberty for security deserve neither.

      1. Hey Mr Slogan, the Patriot Act is up for renewal in Congress this week, I hope you’re gonna back up your sloganeerring and call your Senators and Representative and ask them to vote against renewal. If you don’t your words are just hollow hypocrisy.

        1. Didn’t know that. I’ll definitely call them. I don’t trust politicians or police because they can falsely get you without being accountable. And that was a paraphrase from Ben Franklin. Not a slogan but words of wisdom.

          1. I called them to vote against this unaccountable ability to seize data that can be used to blackmail, extort, and bribe to gain unlimited power. This Act would lead to a group always in suspicion and another beyond approach, a bad world.

  7. If someone has physical access to your device it’s very hard to protect the data on it. First of all, if you don’t have a lock code set, the person can just access everything without any help from ElcomSoft or anyone else. But even the lock code doesn’t provide much protection, since it’s short. If it were long, it would be inconvenient and people wouldn’t use it. The solution of remotely wiping your phone if you lose it, and keeping your home disks encrypted with your own separate encryption passphrase, is actually pretty hard to beat.

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.