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By Robert McMillan
Apple Inc. said it is working on a new security feature that could make it harder for investigators to retrieve data from iPhones, the latest twist in its long-running standoff with law-enforcement agencies over user privacy.
The new software feature, called USB Restricted Mode, is being beta-tested by Apple. It prevents other devices -- personal computers, for example -- from accessing data on the iPhone via its Lightning port an hour after a phone is last unlocked.
Apple, in its first public comment on the feature, said Wednesday that it was designed to improve the security of Apple's devices against all kinds of potential intruders. "We have the greatest respect for law enforcement, and we don't design our security improvements to frustrate their efforts to do their jobs," the company said in a statement.
The change could plug a security loophole used by companies that make forensics tools, who have recently had more success in getting access to Apple's devices. One company, Atlanta's GrayShift LLC, sells a $15,000 USB-connected device that it claims can unlock the latest iPhones. Another company, Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization Ltd., advertises a similar service on its website.
GrayShift and Cellebrite couldn't immediately be reached to comment late Wednesday.
Apple declined to say whether the new feature would be included in the next major update to its iOS mobile operating-system software, due out this fall.
It is also unclear what effect such an update would have on the forensics tools. GrayShift, for example, has said that its devices leverage a series of flaws in the iPhone's iOS operating system to get data off the device. The company, like its competitor Cellebrite, hasn't publicly disclosed what these bugs are.
Still, the software change risks angering law-enforcement agencies at a time when the Justice Department is pressing anew for better access to encrypted technology.
The testing of the USB Restricted Mode feature comes two years after the department sought a court order to gain access to a phone belonging to one of the perpetrators of the 2015 terrorist attack in San Bernardino, Calif.
That case was eventually dropped, after the Federal Bureau of Investigation paid more than $1 million to an unnamed security company to gain access to the iPhone.
An FBI spokeswoman declined to comment. A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
Apple says that it has been increasing its outreach to law-enforcement agencies. The company has said it processed more than 14,000 U.S. government requests for information relating to Apple devices last year, about 10% more than the number the year before, and has a team of analysts dedicated to working on national-security requests.
Write to Robert McMillan at Robert.Mcmillan@wsj.com
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
June 13, 2018 19:34 ET (23:34 GMT)
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