iOS 10 beta kernel is unencrypted, but why?

By , Jun 22, 2016


MIT Technology Review has discovered that the kernel in iOS 10 beta is unencrypted, making it a lot easier for technology-minded users, jailbreak developers and the like to take a peek under iOS’s hood and pinpoint any potential vulnerabilities.

For those wondering, kernels in all prior iOS betas used to be encrypted. Is this a bold move meant to help strengthen security in iOS 10 or will this decision actually introduce further security risks and open new attack vectors for hackers to exploit?

The kernel constitutes the central core and a fundamental part of an operating system, tasked with managing memory, communicating with peripherals and controlling low-level services, hardware and security at the hardware level.

“Crucial pieces of the code destined to power millions of iPhones and iPads were laid bare for all to see,” reads the article, adding that the move “would aid anyone looking for security weaknesses in Apple’s flagship software.”

It’s unclear whether leaving iOS 10 beta’s kernel unencrypted is a deliberate decision or a mistake on Apple’s part, but that doesn’t mean the security of iOS 10 is compromised.

Still, some security experts were baffled by this finding, arguing that opening up a crucial part of iOS’s code in this way could be a major security screwup for anyone, including jailbreak developers and creators of malware and other malicious software, could examine a security measure designed to protect the kernel from being modified.

“Now that it is public, people will be able to study it and potentially find ways around it,” says security researcher Mathew Solnik.

Others deem this a savvy strategy on Apple’s part intended to encourage more people to report bugs in iOS code. “It reduces the complexity of reverse engineering considerably,” says Jonathan Levin, author of an in-depth book on the internal workings of iOS.

Apple declined comment.

Curiously, the secretive Cupertino company has promised in the aftermath of its fight against the FBI to strengthen security and privacy features of iOS 10.

What’s your read of the situation?

Does releasing iOS 10 beta containing an unencrypted kernel signal that someone at Apple screwed up royally? And if so, shouldn’t have Apple pulled iOS 10 beta already? Or, was it a deliberate decision after all?

Source: MIT Technology Review

  • Share:
  • Follow:
  • J3ff

    Pretty Interesting scenario! I think it was deliberate in hopes that people would report issues or potential flaws.

  • Greg

    Maybe they are afraid we won’t find a Jailbreak so they are throwing us a bone.

    • Troy

      True they need jailbreak to “innovate”

    • Senith Deelaka Ranchagoda

      Yeah… Have the same idea..

  • yeskia

    Liking iOS 10, but without jailbreak is just same old, same old…i.e.
    Virtual Home

    Apple, are you listening ?

    • 5723alex .

      Now that you have an unencrypted kernel you can compile all these features into iOS 10jb

    • Digitalfeind

      Doubt they are.

    • Damien Williams

      You won’t need hideme because they are allowing us to delete built in apps like mail or calendar.

  • 5723alex .

    Someone screwed up to the joy of Google, Samsung…..

  • Tom Hopkins

    Whether this was deliberate or not, this is a huge security mistake.

    • Greg

      Depends how you look at it but, yes I agree it is a mistake if you are to take Apple’s by its words. In the past they have always said the encryption was due to security.

      Hackers have always contended the safest system is open to allow the community to build knowledge together and make a better system.

    • I don’t think this was a mistake. Think about it, the UNIX system that powers iOS is called Darwin which was already open sourced by Apple. This means that encrypted on the phone or not, every last person in the world currently has access to this code already if they want.

      There’s also nothing about the kernel that really needs to be encrypted either. In the past Apple has approached security with a sledgehammer approach that encrypts everything on storage. It’s actually kind of nice to see this new approach of only encrypting the things that matter as encrypting the Kernel doesn’t do anything but slow the OS down.

  • Burge

    It’s the first beta and don’t for get it should be for developers only Apple could very easily patch this when public beta comes out.

  • Mr_Coldharbour

    This makes me very sceptical of Apple now. Whilst they did show grit and teeth in their fight with the FBI about encryption, now they did the exact opposite. Something tells me that they got more heat from this recent battle with the U.S gov’t than they anticipated/liked and are now “trying to play nice.” Someone please correct me if my theories are merely wild and do not lineup with the facts of what’s going on and a future release of iOS 10, maybe the public betas or final release, will be encrypted again. Because if that’s not the case, I’ll be sticking with iOS 9 for the foreseeable future.

    • Just to ease your mind a bit, the Kernel was only encrypted because Apple encrypted the entire drive. Anyone who wants to see the code for the Kernel can simply download Apple’s open sourced version of UNIX named Darwin and see it for themselves if they wanted to. I don’t know how or why this is a news item, but sadly it’s being presented as a bad thing. Really the only find here is that Apple now appears to have a way of reliably encrypting portions of data and the great news is that it means that we should be able to expect a slight performance increase in the future 🙂