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CIA 'tried to crack security of Apple devices'

The CIA led sophisticated intelligence agency efforts to undermine the encryption used in Apple phones, as well as insert secret surveillance back doors into apps, top-secret documents published by the Intercept online news site have revealed.

The newly disclosed documents from the National Security Agency's internal systems show surveillance methods were presented at its secret annual conference, known as the "jamboree".

The most serious of the various attacks disclosed at the event was the creation of a dummy version of Apple's development software Xcode, which is used by developers to create apps for iOS devices.

The modified version of Xcode would allow the CIA, NSA or other agencies to insert surveillance backdoors into any app created using the compromised development software. The revelation has already provoked a strong backlash among security researchers on Twitter and elsewhere, and is likely to prompt security audits among Apple developers.

The latest revelations of sustained hacking efforts against Apple devices are set to further strain already difficult relations between the technology company and the US government.

Apple had previously been a partner in the Prism programme, in effect a legal backdoor to obtain user information by the NSA and its allies, but in the wake of the Snowden revelations it has stepped up efforts to protect user privacy, including introducing end-to-end encryption on iMessages.

Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, warned Barack Obama in public remarks this month that history had shown "sacrificing our right to privacy can have dire consequences".

Other efforts showcased at the intelligence agency jamboree included a means of introducing keylogger software - which records and transmits every stroke a compromised user types - into systems through Apple's software update tool on its laptop and desktop computers.

Analysts were also exploring a sophisticated approach to breaking encryption on individual devices using the activity pattern of its processor while it is encrypting data, known as a "side channel" attack, as part of a bid to gain further access to the core software the devices run.

The presentation notes revealed by the Intercept suggested that at the time of the presentation in March 2012 the technique had not yet been successful in extracting the key.

US academics and security researchers have questioned the legality of the CIA's efforts to attack Apple's security.

"If US products are OK to target, that's news to me," Matthew Green of the Information Security Institute at John Hopkins University told the Intercept.

"Tearing apart the products of US manufacturers and potentially putting back doors in software distributed by unknowing developers all seems to be going a bit beyond 'targeting bad guys'. It may be a means to an end, but it's a hell of a means."

The exploits revealed by the Intercept are the latest in a long list of stories disclosing intelligence agency activities against Apple and its platforms. In January 2014, the Guardian disclosed a variety of exploits being used by the UK intelligence agency GCHQ and the NSA against mobile phones.

These included bids to extract personal information from data transmitted by apps including Angry Birds, as well as a range of capabilities to activate remotely the microphone on iPhones and Android devices - a project codenamed Nosey Smurf.

The Guardian also disclosed this year that GCHQ had been engaged in hacking software and hardware widely used in the west, including Cisco routers and Kaspersky antivirus software.

[Source: By James Ball, The Guardian, London, 10Mar15]

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Privacy and counterintelligence
small logoThis document has been published on 11Mar15 by the Equipo Nizkor and Derechos Human Rights. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.