Feb. 22nd, 2016

The US Government is attempting to force Apple to build a signed image that can be flashed onto an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino shooters. To their credit, Apple have pushed back against this - there's an explanation of why doing so would be dangerous here. But what's noteworthy is that Apple are arguing that they shouldn't do this, not that they can't do this - Apple (and many other phone manufacturers) have designed their phones such that they can replace the firmware with anything they want.

In order to prevent unauthorised firmware being installed on a device, Apple (and most other vendors) verify that any firmware updates are signed with a trusted key. The FBI don't have access to Apple's firmware signing keys, and as a result they're unable to simply replace the software themselves. That's why they're asking Apple to build a new firmware image, sign it with their private key and provide it to the FBI.

But what do we mean by "unauthorised firmware"? In this case, it's "not authorised by Apple" - Apple can sign whatever they want, and your iPhone will happily accept that update. As owner of the device, there's no way for you to reconfigure it such that it will accept your updates. And, perhaps worse, there's no way to reconfigure it such that it will reject Apple's.

I've previously written about how it's possible to reconfigure a subset of Android devices so that they trust your images and nobody else's. Any attempt to update the phone using the Google-provided image will fail - instead, they must be re-signed using the keys that were installed in the device. No matter what legal mechanisms were used against them, Google would be unable to produce a signed firmware image that could be installed on the device without your consent. The mechanism I proposed is complicated and annoying, but this could be integrated into the standard vendor update process such that you simply type a password to unlock a key for re-signing.

Why's this important? Sure, in this case the government is attempting to obtain the contents of a phone that belonged to an actual terrorist. But not all cases governments bring will be as legitimate, and not all manufacturers are Apple. Governments will request that manufacturers build new firmware that allows them to monitor the behaviour of activists. They'll attempt to obtain signing keys and use them directly to build backdoors that let them obtain messages sent to journalists. They'll be able to reflash phones to plant evidence to discredit opposition politicians.

We can't rely on Apple to fight every case - if it becomes politically or financially expedient for them to do so, they may well change their policy. And we can't rely on the US government only seeking to obtain this kind of backdoor in clear-cut cases - there's a risk that these techniques will be used against innocent people. The only way for Apple (and all other phone manufacturers) to protect users is to allow users to remove Apple's validation keys and substitute their own. If Apple genuinely value user privacy over Apple's control of a device, it shouldn't be a difficult decision to make.

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Matthew Garrett

About Matthew

Power management, mobile and firmware developer on Linux. Security developer at Google. Member of the Free Software Foundation board of directors. Ex-biologist. @mjg59 on Twitter. Content here should not be interpreted as the opinion of my employer.

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