Sparking a return to the encryption battle between the law enforcement and device manufacturers, Apple is planning to release a new feature that will stop police and other hackers to unlock phones without legal authorisation.
For years, police across major countries such as US have been using a device called a GrayKey to unlock dormant iPhones, using an undisclosed technique to bypass Apple’s default disk encryption.
According to The Verge, the devices are currently in use in at least five states and five federal agencies, seen as a breakthrough in collecting evidence from encrypted devices.
The loophole also applies to countries outside the US, including the UK. Police forces say that being able to unlock iPhones and iPads is crucial to their work.
"We're constantly strengthening the security protections in every Apple product to help customers defend against hackers, identity thieves and intrusions into their personal data. We have the greatest respect for law enforcement, and we don't design our security improvements to frustrate their efforts to do their jobs," Apple said in a statement.
Under the new feature, iPhones will stop all communication through the USB port if they have not been unlocked in the past hour. Once the hour expires, the USB port can only be used to charge the device. The result will give police an extremely short window of time to deploy GrayKey devices successfully.
According to a Malware Bytes report published in March, GrayKey works by installing some kind of low-level software through the iPhone’s Lightning port. After plugging into the GrayKey device briefly, the target iPhone will continue to run the GrayKey software on its own, displaying the device’s passcode on-screen between two hours and three days after the software was installed.
By incorporating changes to the default iPhone settings, Apple wants to prevent unauthorised access to the phones via the USB port.
In 2016, a court order demanded that Apple help the FBI unlock the phone used by San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook. However, Apple refused to help police bypass a phone used by a gunman who killed 14 people in San Bernardino, California.
The company resisted and the FBI eventually paid experts to develop technology that unlocked the phone.
The FBI never revealed the security firm or group of hackers who created that technology.