The NSA can do what to my iPhone?
by Jeffrey Goldberg on
After Der Spiegel, along with Jakob Appelbaum at the 30th meeting of the Chaos Computer Club, published an astonishing trove of documents revealing a great deal of the extent of their penetration of the network and capabilities to install spying mechanisms into individuals’ computers and devices, one of the least significant documents is getting the most press attention. That document, is of course, the one describing the DROPOUTJEEP program.
If you were to believe press reports, you would believe that every iPhone on Earth could be (or is) infected (“implanted” in NSA jargon) with NSA spyware. But what happens if we actually look at the document?
For a fuller discussion of what the documents do and don’t say, I refer you to an excellent article by Graham Cluley, “DROPOUTJEEP. Can the NSA spy on every iPhone on the planet?”. Indeed, Cluley wrote the article that I would have liked to write; so I will just highlight a few points instead of repeating things.
Question: What can we conclude about the NSAs current capabilities and attacks against recent iOS devices (iPhones, iPads, iPod Touches)?
Answer: Almost nothing.
iDevice security has improved enormously since the first iPhones. The difference between the iPhone 3G and the iPhone 3GS alone was a huge leap. (Not a minuscule “quantum leap”.) Though of course there have been several publicly disclosed or discovered vulnerabilities in various versions of iOS over the intervening years. So while we know about improvements in iOS security, we don’t have any information about how successfully the NSA has been at keeping up (or staying ahead) of that. The only thing we can safely assume is that they would like to have the capabilities (incorrectly) described in the media and that they will have had highly skilled people working on it.
We have no idea of whether the NSA can break or go around 1Password security. The tool described in DROPOUTJEEP would have been able to ship your encrypted 1Password data to the NSA. That is, it could “remotely pull/push files from the device”, which would include any files—documents, photos, and that sweet GarageBand track you’re tinkering with. But there is no indication from the listed capabilities that it could grab your Master Password, keys, or encrypted data. Still, the “safer” assumption is that they could have.
As for today, we again have no idea. The question of how well any security product stands up against threats from a compromised operating system is tricky. In a technical sense, once the operating system is compromised then nothing running on it can be trusted. But in a practical sense, applications can sometimes put up meaningful defenses against some of the attacks that do exist from a compromised operating system.
Nobody can realistically claim that they are safe from the NSA. We simply don’t know their full capabilities. But 1Password does provide end-to-end encryption, with no reason to believe that the encryption we use can be broken by the NSA. So we can say that 1Password is “PRISM Resistant“. When the NSA captures your encrypted 1Password data, they – in all likelihood – need to guess your Master Password to decrypt your data. If they already control the computer or device you are using, then they can probably get around 1Password’s security.
[Update: This section was added on January 1 2014 to more explicitly spell out the implications of the previous paragraphs.]
1Password provides end-to-end encryption. This is what makes it “PRISM Resistant”. If your data is captured by any attacker, governmental or otherwise, from your machine or from a sync service, we believe that the best attack is to try to guess your Master Password. PRISM represents a threat that end-to-end encryption does defend against.
End-to-end encryption does not cover the situation where the attacker has compromised the system on which you are decrypting your data. That is, if the attacker controls something that you use at either “end” of your end-to-end encryption (such as the operating system), then this poses a threat that end-to-end encryption does not solve. Thus DROPOUTJEEP represents the kind of threat that end-to-end encryption does not defend against.
DROPOUTJEEP doesn’t tell us about NSA current capabilities, but it does tell us that the NSA in the past has had the capability and intention to compromise iPhones. It is more than plausible that they have continued to develop the program over the past six years. To the extent that they have been successful (something we simply don’t know), then we can only advise people to behave as if nothing on their devices is protected from the NSA.
Although it should go without saying, I will repeat myself: If the US government is aware of vulnerabilities in iOS (or any other system) and has failed to disclose those vulnerabilities to Apple, we have absolutely no choice but to consider the US government to be “black hats”.
I started out saying that I think that DROPOUTJEEP is one of the least significant of the documents released. I haven’t studied more than just a few, but I find the overall penetration of the Internet the most disturbing at this point.
AgileBits is a Canadian company comprised of people from a variety of different countries. But I am a US Citizen, and as one I am furious that my own government is working to make my job harder. My job is to help you keep your data secure. Every time my government discovers (or even creates) a vulnerability in network and application security that they don’t disclose to the vendor is a time when they are harming everyone’s security.
Their activity also makes it extremely difficult for people to know who they can trust. I will state again that we have never been asked, pressured, or ordered to do anything that would weaken our products or your security, nor have we ever deliberately weakened our products. For a discussion of what reasons you might have to believe us when we say that, see 1Password and the Crypto Wars.
Apple has never worked with the NSA to create a backdoor in any of our products, including iPhone. Additionally, we have been unaware of this alleged NSA program targeting our products. We care deeply about our customers’ privacy and security. Our team is continuously working to make our products even more secure, and we make it easy for customers to keep their software up to date with the latest advancements. Whenever we hear about attempts to undermine Apple’s industry-leading security, we thoroughly investigate and take appropriate steps to protect our customers. We will continue to use our resources to stay ahead of malicious hackers and defend our customers from security attacks, regardless of who’s behind them.
[Update: This post has been edited to correct the Spelling of Appelbaum’s name and to explicitly mentioned that there have been several vulnerabilities in more recent versions of iOS over the intervening yeas. It has also been updated to include a section that explicitly spells what end-to-end encryption does and doesn’t protect you against.]