2018 interview with Tim Cook suggests Apple was working on iCloud backup encryption

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2018 interview with Tim Cook suggests Apple was working on iCloud backup encryption
Apple is embroiled in a new privacy-centered controversy.
Photo: Apple

Yesterday, news broke about how Apple allegedly scrapped plans to let users fully encrypt backups of their devices using iCloud. This was supposedly because the FBI complained that encryption would make future investigations more difficult.

Apple did not comment on Reuters’ story. But a previous interview with CEO Tim Cook, published by German-language newspaper Der Spiegel, suggests this is something Apple may, in fact, have been working on.

The interview with Cook, which touched on iCloud encryption, was conducted in 2018 by journalist Matthias Kremp. Kremp pressed Cook on how to assuage the fears of users skeptical that iCloud might not maintain the security of their data. As part of his answer, Cook sheds light on the security of iCloud backups (note: Cook’s answer translated into English):

“Our users have a key there, and we have one. We do this because some users lose or forget their key and then expect help from us to get their data back. It is difficult to estimate when we will change this practice. But I think that in the future it will be regulated like the devices. We will therefore no longer have a key for this in the future.”

In the same interview, Cook also said:

“The only way to effectively protect user data – whether in the cloud, on a device or in transit – is through encryption. We may develop a better method in the future, but as things stand today, this is the only way. The encryption on our devices is strong because we store the key exclusively on the device. Only the user has this key and can unlock the device. If we were pushed to decrypt it, we couldn’t.”

Tim Cook on iCloud encryption

That is no cast-iron assertion that Apple was about to debut a feature like the one described in the Reuters article. But given how controlled Apple is about its messaging, it seems noteworthy. The Der Spiegel interview was also carried out right around the time that Apple was reportedly in conversations about whether to kill the feature.

In the end, as one ex-Apple employee told Reuters, Apple decided it wasn’t going to “poke the bear anymore.” This refers to another standoff with the FBI over privacy and encryption.

Cult of Mac reached out to Kremp, who carried out the Cook interview. Referring to the feature alluded to in his interview, he said: “My guess would be, that this is exactly what Tim wanted to say. Apple’s plan might be – or might have been – to build an end-to-end-encryption for all data stored in iCloud. At least partially the idea behind this plan could be to get rid of the keys, and thus … end the ongoing discussions with the FBI and similar authorities.”