APPLE EMERGED AS a guardian of user privacy this year after fighting FBI demands to help crack into San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone. The company has gone to great lengths to secure customer data in recent years, by implementing better encryption for all phones and refusing to undermine that encryption.
But private information still escapes from Apple products under some circumstances. The latest involves the company’s online syncing service iCloud.
Russian digital forensics firm Elcomsoft has found that Apple’s mobile devices automatically send a user’s call history to the company’s servers if iCloud is enabled — but the data gets uploaded in many instances without user choice or notification.
“You only need to have iCloud itself enabled” for the data to be sent, said Vladimir Katalov, CEO of Elcomsoft.
The logs surreptitiously uploaded to Apple contain a list of all calls made and received on an iOS device, complete with phone numbers, dates and times, and duration. They also include missed and bypassed calls. Elcomsoft said Apple retains the data in a user’s iCloud account for up to four months, providing a boon to law enforcement who may not be able to obtain the data either from the user’s phone, if it’s encrypted with an unbreakable passcode, or from the carrier. Although large carriers in the U.S. retain call logs for a year or more, this may not be the case with carrier outside the US.
It’s not just regular call logs that get sent to Apple’s servers. FaceTime, which is used to make audio and video calls on iOS devices, also syncs call history to iCloud automatically, according to Elcomsoft. The company believes syncing of both regular calls and FaceTime call logs goes back to at least iOS 8.2, which Apple released in March 2015.
And beginning with Apple’s latest operating system, iOS 10, incoming missed calls that are made through third-party VoIP applications like Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber, and that use Apple CallKit to make the calls, also get logged to the cloud, Katalov said.
Because Apple possesses the keys to unlock iCloud accounts, U.S. law enforcement agencies can obtain direct access to the logs with a court order. But they still need a tool to extract and parse it.
Elcomsoft said it’s releasing an update to its Phone Breaker software tool today that can be used to extract the call histories from iCloud accounts, using the account holder’s credentials. Elcomsoft’s forensic tools are used by law enforcement, corporate security departments, and even consumers. The company also leases some of its extraction code to Cellebrite, the Israeli firm the FBI regularly uses to get into seized phones and iCloud data.
In some cases, Elcomsoft’s tool can help customers access iCloud even without account credentials, if they can obtain an authentication token for the account from the account holder’s computer, allowing them to get iCloud data without Apple’s help. The use of authentication tokens also bypasses two-factor authentication if the account holder has set this up to prevent a hacker from getting into their account, Elcomsoft notes on its website.