Article in iOS App Development category.

Does iMessage really fill U.S. federal agents with despair?

During the presentation of iOS 5 in June, 2011, Apple announced the arrival of iMessage, a service which allows users to send text messages, photos…

During the presentation of iOS 5 in June, 2011, Apple announced the arrival of iMessage, a service which allows users to send text messages, photos and videos between all the devices working under iOS. Cupertino said it would use "secure end-to-end encryption”. iMessage is very appreciated by the users and according to the CEO of Apple, Tim Cook, the service passes in transit two billion messages every day.

However, its success could be spoiled by the DEA, for whom the privacy feature set up by Apple would be too strong. According to the confidential documents consulted by CNET, the decoding of the communications between two iOS devices using iMessage would be impossible in a reasonable time.

"iMessages between two Apple devices are considered encrypted communication and cannot be intercepted, regardless of the cell phone service provider”, the DEA says in the document. But, if the messages are exchanged between an Apple device and a non-Apple device, the agency says, they "can sometimes be intercepted, depending on where the intercept is placed."

The difficulties met by the agents of the DEA with iMessage do not indicate that Apple does not cooperate with the authorities. In its non-disclosure commitment, the company specifies that they can divulge customers' information to law enforcement when "reasonably necessary or appropriate" or to "comply with legal process." The company continues by indicating that it will be able to reveal your data if it thinks that “in purposes of National Security, law enforcement or other subject of public interest, the disclosure is necessary or suited".

Measures contained in the American law CALEA as backdoors do not cover high-tech companies which have developed products and services that were not imagined before the law, in 1994. The FBI supports the idea to adapt the legislation to simplify electronic surveillance and establish direct accesses.

Then, it is pretty clear that Apple hold the keys. But, as CNET implies in its article, is it a real obstacle for the DEA?

When you boot up a brand new iOS device, you automatically get access to your old messages, which are obviously stored in an Apple’s cloud. So, what about going to Apple directly, instead of going to the mobile operators as the CNET article suggest? SMS messages are only stored for a short time, while iMessages seem to be stored indefinitely. Flexibility for the DEA is even more improved.

Even in this case, it remains to be know how all the government agencies and federal authorities are politically going to accomplish their purposes.

In its article, Julian Sanchez thinks the leaking of the DEA’s document may be planned by the authorities. This would permit to convince criminals that iMessages are safe, so they start using them falsely believing their messages are protected. In the meantime, it could be part of the feds' longstanding effort to convince lawmakers to make it mandatory that all communications systems have backdoors for wiretapping.

At Fueled, we find it hard to believe but whatever it is premeditated or not, it could accelerate the process of introducing a new legislation which widens the impact of the CALEA and similar laws.

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