Apple said an upcoming iOS software update will remove the infamous iPhone USB access feature, blocking out both hackers - and law enforcement - from accessing a locked phones' data via the device port.
The "USB Restricted Mode" function, originally tipped to arrive in Apple's battery-slurping iOS 11.4 update, will see Apple disable an iPhone's Lightning port if it hasn't been unlocked for a seven-day period, limiting its use to exclusively charging.
The latest step could draw criticism from American police departments, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and perhaps the U.S. Justice Department, where officials have recently renewed an on-again, off-again campaign for legislation or other extraordinary means of forcing technology companies to maintain access to their users' communications. Apple has justified its action by releasing a statement that says that the company has fixed the loophole not only to prevent government bodies from accessing users' data but also because the loophole is popular amongst thieves and criminals.
However, the paper did note that Apple says it has responded to 55,000-plus USA government requests for iCloud data linked to over 208,000 devices since 2013, which isn't exactly evidence of noncooperation with police investigations.
The company told Reuters that while it respects law enforcement agencies and the work they do, it must protect it customers against hackers. With USB Restricted Mode, an iPhone's Lightning port will lock one hour after the phone is locked. Data access through the Lightning port on a device running iOS 12 is cut off if it hasn't been unlocked within the last hour.
Apple will make a method - often used by police - for getting data off iPhones much less powerful with a software update announced Wednesday.
Apple said that after it learned of techniques being used against iPhones, it reviewed the operating system code and made a number of improvements to the security. Another company, Grayshift, sells a device that can unlock iPhones to law enforcement.
Law enforcement agencies that have purchased a GrayKey device include the Drug Enforcement Administration, which bought an advanced model earlier this year for $30,000, according to public records. If they want to unlock suspect devices, they'll need to plug them into a GrayKey within an hour of seizing them, which could mean deploying the GrayKey devices far more proactively with first responders, rather than keeping them in a lab.
Apple has been at the forefront of a battle between tech companies and law enforcement to hand over data in extreme cases.
Grayshift did not respond to requests for comment.
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