A newly discovered security feature in Apple’s upcoming mobile operating system could boost user data security—and make it harder for police to find information.
Apple has added a requirement that forces iPhone owners to use both a fingerprint and their device passcode to establish a “trusting” relationship with the computers on which they want to backup their devices, security firm Elcomsoft revealed in a recent blog post. That means there’s an additional step for users to access a backup—and an additional step for law enforcement to do the same. The Verge earlier reported on the feature.
There are multiple ways to access iPhone data. One of the easiest is simply to log into the device itself and see what’s on there. But Apple currently has security protocols that require at least a fingerprint to access its data. If the iPhone turns off or hasn’t been used for some time, Apple requires both a passcode and a fingerprint sensor to access the onboard data.
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Law enforcement officials have long been frustrated by the security feature. While it’s reasonably simple to compel a person to place their fingerprint on the iPhone’s sensor to access data, getting a passcode requires more legal wrangling. And if the person in question has died, accessing the passcode can be nearly impossible.
As a workaround, law enforcement has used computer-based backups users might have done to keep their iPhone data safe. In that scenario, officials need only to access the computer, pair it with the iPhone, and require the owner to use his or her fingerprint. From there, the data is fully accessible.
Apple’s (AAPL) apparent decision to add the passcode requirement to backups might seem like a small security upgrade for users to ensure data doesn’t get into the wrong hands, but it might also prove to be a problem for law enforcement officials who will soon need to know a person’s passcode to access his or her data.
Absent both a fingerprint and a passcode, then, a person’s iPhone data remains encrypted.
It’s unclear exactly why Apple made the change and how law enforcement might respond to it. However, with reports that Apple is planning to nix the fingerprint sensor in a device it could launch this year called the iPhone X, the company might have felt it had no other option but to add passcode support to backups.