Tim Cook in 2018: Apple may no longer have a key to iCloud data in the future

The explosive Reuters story alleging that the FBI a few years ago successfully pressured Apple into dropping plans to encrypt iOS device backups in iCloud has put a spotlight on an interview that Tim Cook gave to German newspaper Der Spiegel about a year ago, in which he hinted Apple might eventually no longer have an encryption key to iCloud data.

Asked by the newspaper whether or not iOS device backups in iCloud are as secure as the data locally stored on users’ devices, Cook said the following:

Our users have a key there and we have one. We do this because some users lose or forget their key and then expect help from us to get their data back. It is difficult to estimate when we will change this practice. I believe that in the future, it will be handled like on devices. We will therefore no longer have a key for this in the future.

Cook basically said that enforcing end-to-end encryption for iCloud backups would inconvenience some of its customers who may forget their device passcode because the company would not have the encryption keys required to decipher their backups.

The Loop’s Dave Mark explains it better than I ever could:

Part of the problem for me with this whole encryption debate is the jargon. You have to work hard to make sure you are following along properly, to understand the implications of end-to-end encryption, and encrypting iCloud backups.

End-to-end encryption means your messages are encrypted when you type them, then decrypted on the receiving end. Encrypting iCloud backups means what it says, that the backup of your iPhone stored in the cloud is encrypted.

Apple has always publicly argued that law enforcement agencies are able to get iPhone data from iCloud without having to use brute force algorithms to guess the passcode and extract the data on the phones before their owners try to wipe the contents remotely.

But according to Fast Company’s report that goes inside an expensive crime lab focused on cracking iPhones, the District Attorney of Manhattan, Cy Vance Jr., thinks Apple’s argument is disingenuous because criminals know better than use the iCloud Backup feature. “It sounds fabulous,” he said, “but if you’re a serious criminal, you’re not going to back [your phone] up.”

Apple’s document outlining iCloud security reveals the company does use end-to-end encryption to protect many types of data stored in iCloud by individual apps, including stuff such as your photos, messages, calendars, reminders and so forth.

EDITORIAL: How worried should you be about Apple and end-to-end encryption?

But as soon as you enable the iCloud Backup option in Settings, the police and other law enforcement agencies can request a copy of that data and Apple has no other choice but to comply with the request because it has the encryption key. Enabling iCloud Backup makes everything in the backup file accessible, including your messages and photos.

From the document:

Messages in iCloud also uses end-to-end encryption. If you have iCloud Backup turned on, your backup includes a copy of the key protecting your Messages. This ensures you can recover your Messages if you lose access to iCloud Keychain and your trusted devices. When you turn off iCloud Backup, a new key is generated on your device to protect future messages and isn’t stored by Apple.

Making matters worse for Apple, Google does offer end-to-end encryption for Android backups in the cloud. The search monster rolled out this feature in October 2018 without giving advance notice to governments, Reuters has it. As a result, Android users could back up their data to Google without trusting the company with the encryption key.

From Google’s official announcement a little over a year ago:

Starting in Android Pie, devices can take advantage of a new capability where backed-up application data can only be decrypted by a key that is randomly generated at the client. This decryption key is encrypted using the user’s lockscreen PIN/pattern/passcode, which isn’t known by Google. Then, this passcode-protected key material is encrypted to a Titan security chip on our datacenter floor.

The Titan chip is configured to only release the backup decryption key when presented with a correct claim derived from the user’s passcode. Because the Titan chip must authorize every access to the decryption key, it can permanently block access after too many incorrect attempts at guessing the user’s passcode, thus mitigating brute force attacks.

The limited number of incorrect attempts is strictly enforced by a custom Titan firmware that cannot be updated without erasing the contents of the chip. By design, this means that no one (including Google) can access a user’s backed-up application data without specifically knowing their passcode.

Reuters claims Apple dropped its plans for encrypting iCloud backups “about two years ago”.

To be clear, Apple does offer fully encrypted local iOS device backups that ensure no one, not even Apple itself, can unlock the backup data without the encryption password. However, local iOS device backups to a Mac or PC are not encrypted by default.

Summing up, it seems Uncle Sam has picked Apple as the poster boy for making encryption illegal. Of course, this isn’t the first time Apple and the government spooks are at loggerheads.

A few years back in the middle of the Apple vs. FBI fight, Cook said creating a backdoor into the iOS software would put hundreds of millions of customers at risk and trample civil liberties. He likened such a potentially privacy-degrading feature to “a software equivalent of cancer”.


“If a court can ask us to write this piece of software, think about what else they could ask us to write — maybe it’s an operating system for surveillance, maybe the ability for the law enforcement to turn on the camera,” he told ABC News in February 2016.

Apple’s latest transparency report has revealed that the company received government requests for 195,000+ devices during the first half of 2019. Apple was able to successfully provide data for about 82 percent of the devices, the report added.

What’s your position on the latest round of the Apple vs. FBI fight? Should Apple create a backdoor into iOS to help law enforcement catch bad actors? And did the company really give in to the FBI pressure in terms of iCloud backups, do you think?

Share your opinion in the comments down below!