Reuters: Apple Dropped a Plan for Encrypting iCloud Backups After FBI Complained

Joseph Menn, Reuters:

More than two years ago, Apple told the FBI that it planned to offer users end-to-end encryption when storing their phone data on iCloud, according to one current and three former FBI officials and one current and one former Apple employee.

Under that plan, primarily designed to thwart hackers, Apple would no longer have a key to unlock the encrypted data, meaning it would not be able to turn material over to authorities in a readable form even under court order.

In private talks with Apple soon after, representatives of the FBI’s cyber crime agents and its operational technology division objected to the plan, arguing it would deny them the most effective means for gaining evidence against iPhone-using suspects, the government sources said.

When Apple spoke privately to the FBI about its work on phone security the following year, the end-to-end encryption plan had been dropped, according to the six sources. Reuters could not determine why exactly Apple dropped the plan.

Apple describes both local iPhone storage and iCloud backups as “encrypted”, but those words mean different things depending on their context. An iPhone’s files cannot be decrypted unless the passcode is known, which typically means that only the device’s user has full access. But an iCloud backup’s key is held by Apple, so they have just as much access as the user would. Importantly, it also means that there is a way of recovering the data should the user’s key fail for some reason. It is possible that part of the reason Apple scrapped a plan for end-to-end encryption of iCloud backups is because it would lead to customers frustrated that they cannot recover their backup in some circumstances.

However, it is more troubling if such a plan never came to fruition because of government pressure. I don’t think it should be the goal of Apple or any company to deliberately make the work of law enforcement impossible, but decisions like these should be made in the best interests of users. And I would expect many users believe that storing their device’s backup in iCloud should not compromise their security and privacy. At the very least, encrypting backups using a secret known only to the user should be an option for iOS users; after all, it is apparently an option on Android. Apple also ought to make it plainly obvious who holds the key to encrypted data at every level to help reduce moronic takes like that from David Carroll:

Apple’s new position on protecting iCloud data from the United States government is now remarkably similar to its position on protecting iCloud data stored in the People’s Republic of China.

This simply isn’t true on any level. For a start, this is not a “new position”, and it does not solely apply to the United States government. Apple makes public what it can and cannot supply to law enforcement, and how they respond to those requests (PDF):

All iCloud content data stored by Apple is encrypted at the location of the server. When third-party vendors are used to store data, Apple never gives them the keys. Apple retains the encryption keys in its U.S. data centers. iCloud content, as it exists in the subscriber’s account, may be provided in response to a search warrant issued upon a showing of probable cause.

For law enforcement agencies outside the U.S. (PDF), the last sentence is replaced with this paragraph:

All requests from government and law enforcement agencies outside of the United States for content, with the exception of emergency circumstances (defined above in Emergency Requests), must comply with applicable laws, including the United States Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA). A request under a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty or Agreement with the United States is in compliance with ECPA. Apple Inc. will provide subscriber content, as it exists in the subscriber’s account, only in response to such legally valid process.

The worry in China is not necessarily that the government can subpoena for iCloud data; the worry is that user data is stored on servers belonging to a company run, in part, by a corrupt single-party regime. The government of the U.S. and its various criminal justice and national security branches are worrying for myriad reasons, but they cannot accurately be compared to the situation in China.

If you are understandably worried by this report, you can back up your iPhone to your Mac, with the option of creating an encrypted backup. Unlike an iCloud backup, you control the key. And, as of recent versions of iOS, you can migrate data directly between devices.