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NAND mirroring could be key to unlocking terrorist’s phone

Molly Wood Mar 23, 2016
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NAND mirroring can grant a user unlimited tries at guessing a phone's passcode.
Wikipedia

It’s like “Groundhog Day,” but with your phone’s data.

The Department of Justice was set to battle it out with Apple in an encryption hearing this week. However, a request for postponement by the DOJ was granted after they received information by an unidentified source about an alternative to unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, Syed Farook.

Joseph Lorenzo Hall, chief technologist at the Center for Democracy & Technology, believes the method they will attempt is NAND mirroring. “Your phone has a little bit of memory, and you can overwrite that memory,” Hall said. “In this case you would make it forget the last few passcode attempts, so that it wouldn’t erase itself.”

This requires the NAND chip, which holds the phone’s data, to be removed and placed in another device analogous to a CD burner. Once the data is copied, if too many passcode attempts cause the data to be deleted, the original data can be re-written back on the chip. This essentially gives unlimited tries at the passcode.

“Plenty of forensics companies would have the capabilities to do this kind of a thing,” Hall said.

And with hundreds of phones out there that different law enforcement agencies want to break into, there is a definite profit to be made from this.

“You could charge 50 grand per one of those phones, and you have a pretty penny sitting in your pocket,” Hall said.

But even if this alternative works and the legal battle between the FBI and Apple ends, the larger fight over encryption will certainly continue. 

Additional production by Levi Sharpe.

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