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So I’ve been reading up on the 2015 San Bernardino attack and the legal/tech issues surrounding the FBI’s request that Apple unlocks the shooter’s phone. This is how I understand the issue:

Wait a second… The iPhone itself is encrypted and the data cannot be accessed without a correct PIN code, right? But the iCloud backups are somehow not encrypted and accessible in the clear on Apple’s servers? According to this accepted answer on Ask Different it seems that some backed up data is in the clear, but the bulk of it is encrypted on the server side.

Now I’m confused: Can Apple easily decrypt an iCloud backup of your phone data or not? The implication here is your physical Apple device is truly encrypted in a rock solid way, but on Apple’s servers? Not so much. What’s the deal?

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According to this other answer to the same thread on Ask Different, it seems that all that is required for an iCloud backup to be accessed is the will and desire of an Apple employee or someone who has breached their system; bold emphasis is mine:

iCloud uses server-side encryption, not client-side encryption. When sending data to the cloud, it gets encrypted on your machine with SSL, then decrypted at the iCloud servers, then re-encrypted using an encryption key that Apple knows for storage. This means that Apple employees have the technical ability to read your data. There may be procedural, technical, or policy controls to make this unlikely, but the capability is there. That means that if Apple's cloud ever gets compromised by a sophisticated attacker, the attacker could potentially access all your data. In other words, any data breach or accident on Apple's part could potentially expose your data.

Past that, Apple themselves say as much in their official Legal Process Guidelines:

The following information may be available from iCloud:

i. Subscriber Information

When a customer sets up an iCloud account, basic subscriber information such as name, physical address, email address, and telephone number may be provided to Apple. Additionally, information regarding iCloud feature connections may also be available. iCloud subscriber information and connection logs with IP addresses can be obtained with a subpoena or greater legal process. Connection logs are retained up to 30 days.

ii. Mail Logs

Mail logs include records of incoming and outgoing communications such as time, date, sender email addresses, and recipient email addresses. Mail logs may be obtained with a court order under 18 U.S.C. § 2703(d) or a court order with an equivalent legal standard or a search warrant. iCloud mail logs are retained up to 60 days.

iii. Email Content

iCloud only stores the email a subscriber has elected to maintain in the account while the subscriber’s account remains active. Apple does not retain deleted content once it is cleared from Apple’s servers. Apple is unable to provide deleted content. Available email content may be provided in response to a search warrant issued upon a showing of probable cause.

iv. Other iCloud Content. Photo Stream, Docs, Contacts, Calendars, Bookmarks, iOS Device Backups

iCloud only stores content for the services that the subscriber has elected to maintain in the account while the subscriber’s account remains active. Apple does not retain deleted content once it is cleared from Apple’s servers. iCloud content may include stored photos, documents, contacts, calendars, bookmarks and iOS device backups. iOS device backups may include photos and videos in the users’ camera roll, device settings, app data, iMessage, SMS, and MMS messages and voicemail. iCloud content may be provided in response to a search warrant issued upon a showing of probable cause.

So at the end of the day, an encrypted iDevice (iPhone, iPad, iPod Touch, etc…) is an encrypted iDevice. But most any iDevice data backed up to Apple’s iCloud is accessible by Apple staff. As to whether that data is shared or viewed is a concept protected by procedures, processes and legal agreements only; technology doesn’t really play much role in protecting that data.

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There are law that force the companies to be able to provide online stored data on proper request from the government.

Data are probably still encrypted, but Apple will retain the means to read that data, because of their obligation toward the law.

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