Apple To More Widely Encrypt iCloud Data

Photo by Kartikey Das on

Apple has announced it will begin rolling out new data security protections for Americans by end of 2022, and the rest of the world in 2023. This is a big deal.

One of the biggest, and most serious, gaping holes in the protections that Apple has provided to its users is linked to iCloud. Specifically, while a subset of information has been encrypted such that Apple couldn’t access or disclose the plaintext of communications or content (e.g., Health information, encrypted Apple Notes, etc) the company did not encrypt device backups, message backups, notes generally, iCloud contents, Photos, and more. The result is that third-parties could either compel Apple to disclose information (e.g., by way of warrant) or otherwise subvert Apple’s protections to access stored data (e.g., targeted attacks). Apple’s new security protections will expand the categories of protected data from 141 to 23.

I am very supportive of Apple’s decision and frankly congratulate them on the very real courage that it takes to implement something like this. It is:

  • courageous technically, insofar as this is a challenging thing to pull off at the scale at which Apple operates
  • courageous from a business perspective, insofar as it raises the prospect of unhappy customers should they lose access to their data and Apple unable to assist them
  • courageous legally, insofar as it’s going to inspire a lot of frustration and upset by law enforcement and government agencies around the world

It’ll be absolutely critical to observe how quickly, and how broadly, Apple extends its new security capacities and whether countries are able to pressure Apple to either not deploy them for their residents or roll them back in certain situations. Either way, Apple routinely sets the standard on consumer privacy protections; others in the industry will now be inevitably compared to Apple as either meeting the new standard or failing their own customers in one way or another.

From a Canadian, Australia, or British government point of view, I suspect that Apple’s decision will infuriate law enforcement and security agencies who had placed their hopes on CLOUD Act bilateral agreements to get access to corporate data, such as that held by Apple. Under a CLOUD bilateral British authorities could, as an example, directly serve a judicially authorised order to Apple about a British resident, to get Apple to disclose information back to the British authorities without having to deal with American authorities. It promised to substantially improve the speed at which countries with bilateral agreements could obtain electronic evidence. Now, it would seem, Apple will largely be unable to assist law enforcement and security agencies when it comes to Apple users who have voluntarily enabled heightened data protections. Apple’s decision will, almost certainly, further inspire governments around the world to double down on their efforts to advance anti-encryption legislation and pass such legislation into law.

Notwithstanding the inevitable government gnashing of teeth, Apple’s approach will represent one of the biggest (voluntary) increases in privacy protection for global users since WhatsApp adopted Signal’s underlying encryption protocols. Tens if not hundreds of millions of people who enable the new data protection will be much safer and more secure in how their data is stored while simultaneously restricting who can access that data without individuals’ own knowledge.

In a world where ‘high-profile’ targets are just people who are social influencers on social media, there are a lot of people who stand to benefit from Apple’s courageous move. I only hope that other companies, such as Google, are courageous enough to follow Apple at some point in the near future.

  1. really, 13, given the issue of iMessage backups being accessible to Apple ↩︎
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