Could focused ion beam help unlock iPhone?

March 4, 2016

In its legal dispute with the FBI, Apple is gaining support from Google, Amazon, Facebook, Microsoft, and others, who filed court briefs yesterday contesting the government’s arguments. The New York Times reports, “The extraordinary show of support for Apple from the tech companies, including many rivals, underscores how high the stakes are for the industry with the case….”

Meanwhile, even if the government loses its legal case, it may still be able to extract data from the phone in question using focused ion beam technology, according to computer-security experts, as reported in The Wall Street Journal.

The Journal quotes Julia Elvidge, president of Chipworks, as saying the approach would be difficult and expensive. It would involve opening the phone’s A6 processor to examine it to determine the phone’s user ID (UID)—a long series of random numbers. Then, the government could transfer the phone’s encrypted data to another computer and unlock it using a brute force method of guessing the phone’s passcode, which is probably four digits.

A Chipworks graphic accompanying the Journal article illustrates the steps that would be involved:

  • Cut away ten layers of metal bonding to expose the processor’s transistor layer.
  • Use focused ion beams to expose the UID.
  • Move data from the phone’s flash to a PC and figure out the passcode.

Chipworks has done similar work in the past but on less dense chips. Elvidge estimates the cost for the A6 processor would be between $500,000 and $1 million and would involve practice on other chips.

Some experts think the approach is not worth considering. The Journal quotes Radu Trandafir, systems and software development lead at TechInsights, as saying, “We wouldn’t take such a project. It would have a very low probability of success.”

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