Supposedly, John McAfee just went on the air and claimed that he, or anybody really, could crack the iPhone if they have the physical device. But do his steps work, and could the FBI use them? The answer to both is “sort of.”
Essentially what McAfee proposes is to reverse-engineer the iPhone. The first step is to physically disassemble the device and copy the data on it. Then, the code is run through a disassembler, a common tool used to reverse engineer software, to make the code readable by a human. Then, according to McAfee, it’s just a matter of finding where the keypad code is stored in memory and unlocking the device.
Is McAfee right? Could the FBI just do this instead of taking Apple to court over a case it seems increasingly likely it will lose? Yes and no. Theoretically everything McAfee said is correct, but it hinges on a few assumptions he glosses over. The first is that the disassembler’s output will be useful. Despite the name, a disassembler is more of a translator than an exact, one-to-one analysis of the code. While iOS doesn’t appear to be particularly tricky to disassemble, looks can often be deceiving.
The second assumption is that Apple doesn’t have countermeasures against this exact attack. Apple products tend to have rigorous security, and Apple, which hasn’t weighed in so far, has strong business motivation to make disassembling its code a tricky business. Similarly, it seems unlikely a company as obsessed with security as Apple would make it so easy to find unencrypted passwords on its devices.
Of course, nothing’s stopping security experts, or the FBI for that matter, from trying this out. Even Apple itself might take a crack at it. But this isn’t a silver bullet, whatever McAfee might claim.