Apple has introduced a new security feature in iOS 17.2 and macOS Sonoma 14.2 called iMessage Contact Key Verification that is designed to protect against sophisticated hacking attacks. This feature allows users to verify the identities of who they are communicating with in the Messages app, giving them confidence that they are truly messaging the intended recipient.
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iMessage Contact Key Verification is aimed at people who face extraordinary digital threats from adversaries like nation-state hackers and spyware vendors. This includes journalists, human rights activists, political dissidents, government officials, and corporate executives. For these high-risk users, the ability to definitively verify who they are conversing with provides an important level of security.
Apple says that even in a worst-case scenario where an attacker has breached iCloud servers and can intercept communications, iMessage Contact Key Verification would alert targeted users that something is amiss. This article will provide an overview of how this important new verification feature works on a technical level.
Verifying Identities in iMessage Conversations
iMessage Contact Key Verification leverages a cryptographic technique called Key Transparency to verify the identities of contacts in an iMessage conversation.
Here is how it works on a high level:
- Each iMessage user has public encryption keys associated with their devices that are distributed by Apple’s key servers.
- These public keys are committed to a public log that cannot be tampered with or deleted from (utilizing cryptographic techniques).
- When users look up public keys for their contacts, Key Transparency ensures the keys they receive match what was committed publicly to the log.
- Any differences represent a verification error and the user will be notified.
This allows users to definitively know whether the keys they have for their contacts represent the real keys for that person’s devices.
Detecting Man-in-the-Middle Attacks
A sophisticated attacker who has managed to breach iCloud servers could potentially intercept iMessage communications by secretly adding their own device as a middleman.
This is known as a “man-in-the-middle” attack. By intercepting and decrypting communications, the attacker can eavesdrop on conversations.
iMessage Contact Key Verification protects against this type of surveillance:
- If the attacker adds their own device, there will be a key mismatch versus the public log.
- The user will be notified of the verification error right in the Messages transcript.
- This alerts the user that an unauthorized third-party device has been added by an attacker.
By detecting man-in-the-middle attacks, iMessage Contact Key Verification provides an important safeguard even in situations where iCloud servers have been compromised.
Optional End-to-End Encryption
For even higher security, users can enable end-to-end encryption for conversations between contacts who have iMessage Contact Key Verification enabled.
End-to-end encryption ensures that only the recipients of a message can read it – not even Apple can access the encrypted content. Users simply toggle an option to “Lock Conversation” in any iMessage thread.
With end-to-end encryption enabled, even a breach of iCloud servers will not allow an attacker to read the content of communications. The messages are fully secured and inaccessible to unauthorized parties.
In-Person Identity Verification
iMessage Contact Key Verification also facilitates in-person identity verification for contacts you personally know.
Users can display a special 6-digit contact verification code in Settings -> Messages that can be shared in person or over FaceTime.
When both users have confidence they are communicating with their intended contact after verifying the code, they can mark the contact as “Verified” in Settings. This provides yet another layer of identity confirmation.
Requiring a Physical Security Key
For users who face the very highest threats from well-funded adversaries like nation-state intelligence agencies, Apple offers an even stronger level of protection.
These users can require a physical security key to sign into their Apple ID account. This could be a hardware-based USB or NFC security key.
With this enabled, signing into an Apple device to access iMessage requires possession of the physical key – providing phishing and account hijacking protection.
Mandatory security keys represent the pinnacle of account security for iMessage Contact Key Verification users who need the absolute highest level of protection.
Here is a summary of the key features of iMessage Contact Key Verification:
|Key Transparency||Cryptographic technique to verify contacts’ public keys against a public log. Notifies users of mismatches.|
|Detect Man-in-the-Middle||Alerts users when unauthorized devices are added by attackers to intercept messages.|
|End-to-End Encryption||Optional per-conversation E2E encryption ensures messages can only be read by recipients.|
|Identity Verification Code||6-digit code that can be verified in-person or on FaceTime for additional identity confirmation.|
|Require Physical Security Key||Highest-risk users can enforce a physical security key like a USB key for Apple ID sign-in to access iMessage.|
iMessage Contact Key Verification offers a robust set of technologies to provide verified secure communications between users. By leveraging cryptographic techniques like Key Transparency and end-to-end encryption, users can have confidence they are messaging only with their intended recipients.
Even in edge cases where sophisticated attackers have breached cloud servers, iMessage Contact Key Verification provides critical alerts to notify users of tampering. This unprecedented level of security allows high-risk individuals to communicate with peace of mind that their conversations truly remain private.