Most Apple’s iCloud data can now be end-to-end encrypted

An archive photo of a man looking at his cell phone screen for an Apple logo. | Photo credit: Reuters

As part of an ongoing privacy push, Apple said Wednesday it will now provide full end-to-end encryption for nearly all data its users store in its global cloud-based storage system. That makes it harder for hackers, spies, and law enforcement to access sensitive user information.

The world’s most valuable company has long held customer security and privacy a top priority. Its iMessage and Facetime communication services are fully encrypted end-to-end and it has sometimes locked horns with law enforcement agencies, including the FBI, for its refusal to unlock devices.

But much of what customers have backed up remotely using Apple’s iCloud service — including photos, videos, and chats — doesn’t come with uncompromising protection through end-to-end encryption, a technology that prevents even Apple from it can decode. That has made it easier for crooks, spies—and detectives with warrants—to get to it.

No longer. The loophole that law enforcement had to get hold of iPhone data is now significantly reduced.

Apple, based in Cupertino, California, did not respond to requests for comment about the timing of the announcement and other issues.

The FBI expressed its displeasure.

In a statement, it said it remains a strong supporter of encryption schemes that provide “legal access by design” so that tech companies “who have a legal warrant” can decrypt data and give it to law enforcement. The agency said it remains “deeply concerned about the threat posed by end-to-end and user-only encryption,” highlighting that they hinder the FBI’s ability to protect Americans from crimes ranging from cyber-attacks to violence against children. and terrorism.

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However, cryptographers and other cybersecurity experts have long argued that attempts by law enforcement to weaken encryption with backdoors are unwise, as they would inherently make the internet less trustworthy and harm vulnerable populations, including ethnic minorities.

Last year, Apple announced a plan to scan iPhones for photos of child sexual abuse material, or CSAM.

“Whereas last year Apple was hesitant to deploy encryption features – maybe even fall back a bit with CSAM scanning proposals — it now feels like they’ve decided to hit the accelerator,” noted Johns Hopkins cryptography professor Matthew Green on Twitter.

Apple’s encryption announcement offers what the company calls “Advanced Data Protection,” which requires users of their devices to opt-in. It adds iCloud backup, notes, and photos to categories of data already protected by end-to-end encryption in the cloud, including health data and passwords. Not included in the iCloud encryption scheme are email, contacts and calendar items because they must interoperate with third-party products, Apple said.

It said Advanced Data Protection for iCloud would be available to US users by the end of the year and rolled out to the rest of the world in early 2023.

In a blog post, Apple said that “enhanced security for user data in the cloud is more urgent than ever,” citing research that says data breaches have more than tripled in the past eight years.

Other tech products that already provide end-to-end encryption are the world’s most popular messaging app, whatsappand Signal, a communications app prized by journalists, dissidents, human rights activists, and other traffickers of sensitive data.

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Apple announced a few other advanced security features on Wednesday, including one aimed at journalists, human rights activists and government officials who “face extraordinary digital threats,” such as no-click spyware. Called iMessage Contact Key Verification, it automatically alerts users to eavesdroppers who manage to get a new device into their iCloud through a break-in.

In July, Apple announced a new optional feature called Lockdown Mode, which is designed to protect iPhones and its other products from intrusions from state-sponsored hackers and commercial spyware.

At the time, Apple said it believed the extra layer of protection would be valuable for targets of hacking attacks launched by well-funded groups.

Users can activate and deactivate the lock mode at will.

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