Here's a new feature of iOS 8 that we weren't expecting: Apple announced tonight that the new software makes it impossible for Apple to turn over the data on an iOS 8-equipped iPhone or iPad to U.S. law enforcement, even in the presence of a search warrant. Chalk one up for privacy.
With iOS 8, Apple has changed the way its encryption works. With the newest version of Apple's mobile software in place, the company says it can no longer bypass a user's passcode — meaning that even if U.S. law enforcement presents Apple with a search warrant, the company would be incapable of accessing passcode-protected data on a user's device.
Apple will still be able to access any user data stored on iCloud, meaning a law enforcement request could compel the company to turn over iCloud files when presented with a warrant. But if the files only live on a user's device, and not on the cloud, law enforcement's out of luck.
On devices running iOS 8, your personal data such as photos, messages (including attachments), email, contacts, call history, iTunes content, notes, and reminders is placed under the protection of your passcode. Unlike our competitors, Apple cannot bypass your passcode and therefore cannot access this data. So it's not technically feasible for us to respond to government warrants for the extraction of this data from devices in their possession running iOS 8.
As The Washington Post points out, Apple used to store encryption keys that allowed the company to unlock devices upon law enforcement request, but in its newly updated guide to law enforcement, the company says it no longer does that starting with iOS 8.
Apple will also still be able to access passcode-protected data from devices running iOS 4 through iOS 7, including SMS, iMessage, MMS, photos, videos, contacts, audio recording, and call history. So if a law enforcement agency requests this data from a device not running iOS 8, Apple could be legally compelled to provide it.
The new setup presents a potential problem for iOS 8 users, in that they will no longer be able to call Apple tech support to get into a locked device when they have forgotten the passcode. The only method now will be to wipe the device and install a backup downloaded from iCloud.
It's all a nifty bit of techno-legal wrangling on Apple's part: By taking away its technical capability to respond to law enforcement requests, Apple removed its legal duty to respond to them. If you're concerned about your right to privacy, that sounds like a very good thing — as long as you make sure to disable your iCloud. [Apple via The Washington Post]