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We're attempting to assess the information security on our mobile devices, and information seems rather varied on the question of encryption. Is the encryption technology employed by Android-based phones uniform, and is it secure? I'm also particularly interested in protection from any malicious attackers who may have a decent amount of computing power at their disposal.

As per this question, my impression seems to be that any phone that comes with standard Google-linked (and likely, manufacturer-linked) Android is entirely vulnerable to being unlocked by Google. Do encrypted phones with LineageOS (which I realise has a lot of versions, but in a general sense, at least) use a secure full-disk encryption without backdoors? Or do they at least securely encrypt all user data?

There's clearly some basic security, as my vague attempts to gather any information off a LineageOS phone without unlocking it hasn't gotten anywhere. But again, I can't find great wells of information on the matter, and I realise LineageOS is open-source, though, so surely a knowledgeable attacker could work out what needs doing without too much effort.

Is encryption on standard-Google-android phones secure? Is the encryption on an up-to-date LineageOS install more or equally secure? Are there any better ways to encrypt phone data such that knowledgeable attackers would have a hard time gather any actual data?

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Simplified Explanation

Both Android and Lineage use the same encryption. Both are secure enough against the threats it is designed to protect against. Specifically, an attacker with physical access to a powered-off phone.

Bad analogy time:

Think of device encryption like a document safe. You have the only key.

Think of the lock screen like the security guard you hire to keep people away from your safe.

If an attacker wants to read your documents, if your safe is locked, the security guard is irrelevant. There is no way for them to get into the safe to get your documents. This is when your phone is powered off.

When you go to read your documents, you send your security guard off for lunch, as you are watching after the safety of your documents now. You use your key to unlock the safe. Now you can read your documents. This is when you are actively using your phone.

You have a full work day ahead of you. You step away from the room, leaving the safe unlocked. In a few minutes, the security guard comes back. They will prevent anyone else from getting into the room. This is when your phone is turned on but locked with a lockscreen password.

Your security guard gets a call from their boss. There is a search warrant out for the contents of your safe. They are instructed to allow the police into the room with the safe and keep you out of it. This is Google or other device management software remotely unlocking your phone or even changing the lockscreen password.

They could even remove your documents from the safe, putting them into a new safe, just in case you manage to come back and attempt to lock your safe again. This is Google changing or removing your encryption password, which you will note is only possible because the safe was already unlocked. Had you locked your safe/encrypted your phone, they would need your key, which only you have, to do anything.

A Little More Detail

If I remember correctly, and if it has not changed since I learned about it, the device encryption key is randomly generated and actually stored on the device. This encryption key is then itself encrypted using a mix of your supplied password/PIN/pattern and some device-specific hardware-backed information that is hard to access without destroying the device (and hopefully the data as well). When you turn on your phone, you supply the password to Android, which lets Android decrypt the encryption key, which it can now use to decrypt your data as needed, until you power off your phone again.

Modern Android devices come already encrypted. They use a hard-coded default password mixed with the device-specific stuff to encrypt the encryption key. This lets you use your phone right away out of the box without entering a password. It also lets you set your own password without waiting for all the 128+ GB of data on your phone to be re-encrypted with a new key; the same key is used for encryption, that has not changed, you just re-encrypt the key itself with a new key.

Since the encryption key is already decrypted while your device is powered on, it is easy for Android to just re-encrypt that key whenever it needs to, with a new password, or with the default password again. This is exactly what happens when you change your password, when you enable an accessibility service, or theoretically when Google gets a lawful order to do so (I have not heard of this last one happening). The lockscreen is only software-enforced, if someone has control over the software running on the device, it could easily be bypassed. There are occasionally software bugs (especially in unofficial Android ports like Lineage that mess with the lockscreen behavior) allowing lockscreen bypass without any special access. Without those bugs, or if the phone is off (the encryption key is still encrypted), either special software must already be present on the device, or an automatic update must push such software without user intervention to allow access.

Here Lineage and similar ROMs provide a trade-off:

With Lineage, assuming you do not have Google's services installed (or any other software with similar access or exploitable bugs), there is not any preloaded software or automatic update mechanism that would allow lockscreen bypass or changing encryption passwords. The security guard does not have a phone, so they never get the call to allow the police inside. However, with Lineage you must unlock your bootloader to install Lineage in the first place.

Back to the bad analogy: a locked bootloader is like tamper-proof features on the safe that automatically incinerate the contents if someone removes them. The tamper-proof features prevent affixing anything to the lock, so an attacker cannot attach a device that captures a mould of your key when you insert it, or fit it with some automated system that can somehow try keys much faster than a person casting one key after another and trying each manually (ok, the analogy is stretched to its limit here).

When you unlock your bootloader, all your data gets wiped. But the phone simply will not run any software other than from Google or your device manufacturer, unless the bootloader is unlocked. An attacker probably would love to install a low-level keylogger or a password brute-force cracking program that runs before you even enter your password, but cannot, because the bootloader is locked. If they unlock it to install their software, the data they wanted is now gone. So, they're limited to manually entering one password after another, and can't really speed things up.

But Lineage requires an unlocked bootloader. An attacker with physical access could reboot to "recovery" (the same method used to install Lineage) and then install whatever they want without decrypting your phone first. Then they can either give your phone back and capture your password when you enter it, or brute-force your password in software, guessing thousands or more per second instead of one every few seconds.

If you have a strong password (unlikely for most people, because it's a phone) you'll still be fine. If not, Google as a potential adversary may be preferable.

Note: it is actually possible to have a separate lockscreen password compared to your encryption password. There isn't a UI for it in the system settings (Lineage removed their UI due to flaws in the implementation a while ago), and it may not be possible on "stock" Android at all, but it's technically supported. This might make using a strong encryption password less onerous.

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    Side note, you can actually run other software on the phone with a locked bootloader, if you flash the keys for it while the bootloader is unlocked. This is how GrapheneOS allows you to relock the bootloader. – multithr3at3d Jun 1 at 19:16
  • An excellent point. Some devices, IIUC Google's Nexus and Pixel lines prominent among them, support loading alternative keys to run with custom software and a locked bootloader. But as I don't know the details on that, and Lineage specifically discourages it, I decided not to mention it. :-) – Ben Jun 1 at 21:39
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    All this is great, thank you. And I never take issue with an attempt at analogy. You make good points about loading malicious software via unlocked bootloader, and that security is far from perfect while the phone is still on. This pretty much covers what I wanted to know, thank you! – user11272717 Jun 3 at 9:22

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