That’s because Apple made a choice to make it possible for users to download messages when they change iPhone, rather than enforce encryption on those backups. As detailed in full in a recent report from Johns Hopkins University researchers, when those backups are turned on, Apple can unlock iMessages for the government, should investigators come knocking with a valid warrant.
Which is what they did in an investigation into a crew of alleged dark web drug dealers operating out of Virginia and shipping opioids around Washington D.C., according to a recently-unsealed search warrant. The document details an investigation launched in 2020, when Alexandria, V.A., police looked through the iPhone of a confidential source. This revealed iMessage contacts with members of the alleged conspiracy.
When the police served Apple with a warrant for a handful of iCloud accounts, scores of iMessages were revealed, detailing manufacture of fentanyl and carfentanil, opioids believed to be 5,000 times more potent than heroin, the quality of pills and their potency, according to the warrant. A search of the informant phone had already revealed purchases of fentanyl across dark web bazaars, including the now-closed AlphaBay, once the biggest of all the drug markets. All manner of images that appear to be pills were also included in the iMessages, according to the warrant, which also revealed that one of the suspect’s iClouds also included a Notes list of what appeared to be pill ingredients.
The defendants were arrested earlier this month, though they haven’t yet filed a plea and remain innocent until proven guilty. Their lawyers hadn’t responded to a request for comment at the time of publication. The Justice Department hadn’t responded to multiple requests for comment.
Apple has long held its position on iCloud backups. It has focused on usability rather than total security. If a user changes iPhone and wants all their old iMessages, the easiest way to retrieve them is by getting Apple to store and send them from the iCloud to the new device. It’s the same for other messaging apps like WhatsApp, which offers backups.
But Apple has reportedly considered making iClouds much more difficult for police to access. A Reuters report last year suggested that Apple did have plans to fully encrypt iCloud accounts too, so only users had the key, but backed down. Though the report claimed the decision was made after the FBI asked for iClouds to remain accessible, Reuters found no evidence of Apple’s motivation for ditching the plans.
As previously noted in Forbes, it’s possible to send iMessages to the iCloud by turning them on in settings, but Apple can still decrypt texts if iCloud backup is turned on.
Apple declined to comment, but pointed Forbes to its official documentation on how it handles law enforcement requests, which notes that it can provide iMessages stored in the iCloud.