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So, I keep reading again and again that one should encrypt his android device.

But from an attacker's perspective, what can be done with an unencrypted phone? Can I extract all the files or possibly install malware by accessing the file system on the phone, or can I unlock the phone?

I have bought a new phone and I want to test what can actually be done. So, what can be done?

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  • don't think there's any way to turn off encryption on a new phone. For the older ones, obviously you can grab the data.
    – pcalkins
    Jun 12, 2020 at 21:31
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    Do you mean phone storage level encryption? or phone OS level protection like PIN...?
    – Sayan
    Jun 14, 2020 at 15:09

2 Answers 2

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The main issue with an "unencrypted" device is obviously a local attack. Someone will acquire the phone in question and extract the typically personal messages, files, keys, and so on. An unlock pattern or PIN is usually required to go beyond that, such as installing/side-loading apps.

There are many tools on the market, and range in quality. Some are simple pieces of software which only work on phones without an unlock pattern, all the way to pieces of hardware which are capable of brute forcing both the encryption keys and/or unlock pattern.

Depending on your threat model, traversing an international border might be of some concern, or even if you live in certain countries. As Radio Free Asia notes:

Government procurement documents cited by Reuters showed that police stations in almost every Chinese province have been acquiring special data-extraction devices for smartphones since the ...

The major concern really seems to be that people place banking information and other sensitive pieces of information on their phones. If it was stolen, it could lead to identity fraud, which is massive ordeal to sort out (see the first 3 lines of LifeLock's history). Information like a SIN/SSN can be easily converted for cash on the blackmarket, especially in volume.

Most device encryption succumbs to the very low-tech "rubber-hose" attack for obvious reasons. That is why threat modeling is important to do, as 3DES or RC4 may prove enough to stop street thieves getting information off the phone. Encryption doesn't prevent thieves wiping the phone and selling it "as is", or authorities forcing you to produce the encryption keys in one form or another.

Identity theft is a large reason why paper shredder campaigns are pushed to home/small office users, which can be offered as a comparison to "device encryption" on some level.

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By using UFS chip programmer,

  1. The attacker could be able to read unencrypted applications' internal storage data and user storage data.

  2. He can set enable byte of adb debugging, add himself as authorised adb client and can install malicious user-level application using adb. Malicious application can exploit known unpatched critical vulnerabilities to gain privilege escalation.

Cryptographic keys, apps' authentication tokens, PIN and passwords are encrypted using keys stored in TEE. Some apps like banking apps store them in TEE directly so they are safe from data extraction but it largely depends on their implementation of how they handle secrets.

The attacker will not be able to modify system partitions without unlocking the bootloader because they are protected by Android Verified Boot.

/data partition is always encrypted by default in android 8+ devices. There's no way to disable encryption without unlocking the bootloader. Screen lock must be set otherwise there will be no point of encrypting it.

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