Apple emerged as a guardian of user privacy this year after fighting FBI demands to help crack into San Bernardino shooter Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone. The company has gone to great lengths to secure customer data in recent years, by implementing better encryption for all phones and refusing to undermine that encryption.
But private information still escapes from Apple products under some circumstances. The latest involves the company’s online syncing service iCloud.
Russian digital forensics firm Elcomsoft has found that Apple’s mobile devices automatically send a user’s call history to the company’s servers if iCloud is enabled — but the data gets uploaded in many instances without user choice or notification.
“You only need to have iCloud itself enabled” for the data to be sent, said Vladimir Katalov, CEO of Elcomsoft.
The logs surreptitiously uploaded to Apple contain a list of all calls made and received on an iOS device, complete with phone numbers, dates and times, and duration. They also include missed and bypassed calls. Elcomsoft said Apple retains the data in a user’s iCloud account for up to four months, providing a boon to law enforcement who may not be able to obtain the data either from the user’s carrier, who may retain the data for only a short period, or from the user’s device, if it’s encrypted with an unbreakable passcode.
“Absolutely this is an advantage [for law enforcement],” Robert Osgood, a former FBI supervisory agent who now directs a graduate program in computer forensics at George Mason University, said of Apple’s call-history uploads. “Four months is a long time [to retain call logs]. It’s generally 30 or 60 days for telecom providers, because they don’t want to keep more [records] than they absolutely have to. So if Apple is holding data for four months, that could be a very interesting data repository and they may have data that the telecom provider might not.”
It’s not just regular call logs that get sent to Apple’s servers. FaceTime, which is used to make audio and video calls on iOS devices, also syncs call history to iCloud automatically, according to Elcomsoft. The company believes syncing of both regular calls and FaceTime call logs goes back to at least iOS 8.2, which Apple released in March 2015.
And beginning with Apple’s latest operating system, iOS 10, incoming missed calls that are made through third-party VoIP applications like Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber, and that use Apple CallKit to make the calls, also get logged to the cloud, Katalov said.
Because Apple possesses the keys to unlock iCloud accounts, U.S. law enforcement agencies can obtain direct access to the logs with a court order. But they still need a tool to extract and parse it.