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This article by Mattia Epifani and Pasquale Stirparo, the authors of the book, Learning iOS Forensics, introduces the cloud system provided by Apple to all its users through which they can save their backups and other files on remote servers. In the first part of this article, we will show you the main characteristics of such a service and then the techniques to create and recover a backup from iCloud.

(For more resources related to this topic, see here.)


iCloud is a free cloud storage and cloud computing service designed by Apple to replace MobileMe. The service allows users to store data (music, pictures, videos, and applications) on remote servers and share them on devices with iOS 5 or later operating systems, on Apple computers running OS X Lion or later, or on a PC with Windows Vista or later. Similar to its predecessor, MobileMe, iCloud allows users to synchronize data between devices (e-mail, contacts, calendars, bookmarks, notes, reminders, iWork documents, and so on), or to make a backup of an iOS device (iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch) on remote servers rather than using iTunes and your local computer.

The iCloud service was announced on June 6, 2011 during the Apple Worldwide Developers Conference but became operational to the public from October 12, 2011. The MobileMe service was disabled as a result on June 30, 2012 and all users were transferred to the new environment. In July 2013, iCloud had more than 320 million users. Each iCloud account has 5 GB of free storage for the owners of iDevice with iOS 5 or later and Mac users with Lion or later. Purchases made through iTunes (music, apps, videos, movies, and so on) are not calculated in the count of the occupied space and can be stored in iCloud and downloaded on all devices associated with the Apple ID of the user. Moreover, the user has the option to purchase additional storage in denominations of 20, 200, 500, or 1,000 GB. Access to the iCloud service can be made through integrated applications on devices such as iDevice and Mac computers. Also, to synchronize data on a PC, you need to install the iCloud Control Panel application, which can be downloaded for free from the Apple website. To synchronize contacts, e-mails, and appointments in the calendar on the PC, the user must have Microsoft Outlook 2007 or 2010, while for the synchronization of bookmarks they need Internet Explorer 9 or Safari.

iDevice backup on iCloud

iCloud allows users to make online backups of iDevices so that they will be able to restore their data even on a different iDevice (for example, in case of replacement of devices). The choice of which backup mode to use can be done directly in the settings of the device or through iTunes when the device is connected to the PC or Mac, as follows:Learning iOS Forensics

Once the user has activated the service, the device automatically backs up every time the following scenarios occur:

  • It is connected to the power cable
  • It is connected to a Wi-Fi network
  • Its screen is locked

iCloud online backups are incremental through subsequent snapshots and each snapshot is the current status of the device at the time of its creation. The structure of the backup stored on iCloud is entirely analogous to that of the backup made
with iTunes.

iDevice backup acquisition

Backups that are made online are, to all intents and purposes, not encrypted. Technically, they are encrypted, but the encryption key is stored with the encrypted files. This choice was made by Apple in order for users to be able to restore the backup on a different device than the one that created it. Currently, the acquisition of the iCloud backup is supported by two types of commercial software (Elcomsoft Phone Password Breaker (EPPB) and Wondershare Dr.Fone) and one open source tool (iLoot, which is available at https://github.com/hackappcom/iloot). The interesting aspect is that the same technique was used in the iCloud hack performed in 2014, when personal photos and videos were hacked from the respective iCloud services and released over the Internet (more information is available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2014_celebrity_photo_hack). Though there is no such strong evidence yet that describes how the hack was made, it is believed that Apple’s Find my iPhone service was responsible for this and Apple did not implement any security measure to lockdown account after a particular number of wrong login attempts, which directly arises the possibility of exploitation (brute force, in this case). The tool used to brute force the iCloud password, named iBrute, is still available at https://github.com/hackappcom/ibrute, but has not been working since January 2015.

Case study – iDevice backup acquisition and EPPB with usernames and passwords

As reported on the software manufacturer’s website, EPPB allows the acquisition of data stored on a backup online. Moreover, online backups can be acquired without having the original iOS device in hand. All that’s needed to access online backups stored in the cloud service are the original user’s credentials, including their Apple ID, accompanied with the corresponding password.

The login credentials in iCloud can be retrieved as follows:

  • Using social engineering techniques
  • From a PC (or a Mac) on which they are stored:
  • Directly from the device (iPhone/iPad/iPod touch) by extracting the credentials stored in the keychain

Once credentials have been extracted, the download of the backup is very simple. Follow the step-by-step instructions provided in the program by entering username and password in Download backup from iCloud dialog by going to Tools | Apple | Download backup from iCloud | Password and clicking on Sign in, as shown in the following screenshot:Learning iOS Forensics

At this point, the software displays a screen that shows all the backups present in the user account and allows you to download data.Learning iOS Forensics

It is important to notice the possibility of using the following two options:

  • Restore original file names: If enabled, this option interprets the contents of the Manifest.mbdb file, rebuilding the backup with the same tree structure into domains and sub-domains. If the investigator intends to carry out the analysis with traditional software for data extraction from backups, it is recommended that you disable this option because, if enabled, that software will no longer be able to parse the backup.
  • Download only specific data: This option is very useful when the investigator needs to download only some specific information. Currently, the software supports Call history, Messages, Attachments, Contacts, Safari data, Google data, Calendar, Notes, Info & Settings, Camera Roll, Social Communications, and so on. In this case, the Restore original file names option is automatically activated and it cannot be disabled.Learning iOS Forensics

Once you have chosen the destination folder for the download, the backup starts. The time required to download depends on the size of the storage space available to the user and the number of snapshots stored within that space.Learning iOS Forensics

Case study – iDevice backup acquisition and EPPB with authentication token

The Forensic edition of Phone Password Breaker from Elcomsoft is a tool that gives a digital forensics examiner the power to obtain iCloud data without having the original Apple ID and password. This kind of access is made possible via the use of an authentication token extracted from the user’s computer. These tokens can be obtained from any suspect’s computer where iCloud Control Panel is installed. In order to obtain the token, the user must have been logged in to iCloud Control Panel on that PC at the time of acquisition, so it means that the acquisition can be performed only in a live environment or in a virtualized image of the suspect computer connected to Internet. More information about this tool is available at http://www.elcomsoft.com/eppb.html.

To extract the authentication token from the iCloud Control Panel, the analyst needs to use a small executable file on the machine called atex.exe. The executable file can be launched from an external pen drive during a live forensics activity.

Open Command Prompt and launch the atex –l command to list all the local iCloud users as follows:Learning iOS Forensics

Then, launch atex.exe again with the getToken parameter (-t) and enter the username of the specific local Windows user and the password for this user’s Windows account.Learning iOS Forensics

A file called icloud_token_<timestamp>.txt will be created in the directory from which atex.exe was launched.Learning iOS Forensics

The file contains the Apple ID of the current iCloud Control Panel user and its authentication token.Learning iOS Forensics

Now that the analyst has the authentication token, they can start the EPPB software and navigate to Tools | Apple | Download backup from iCloud | Token and copy and paste the token (be careful to copy the entire second row from the .txt file created by the atex.exe tool) into the software and click on Sign in, as shown in the following screenshot. At this point, the software shows the screen for downloading the iCloud backups stored within the iCloud space of the user, in a similar way as you provide a username and password.Learning iOS Forensics

The procedure for the Mac OS X version is exactly the same. Just launch the atex Mac version from a shell and follow the steps shown previously in the Windows environment:

  • sudo atex –l: This command is used to get the list of all iCloud users.
  • sudo atex –t –u <username>: This command is used to get the authentication token for a specific user. You will need to enter the user’s system password when prompted.

Case study – iDevice backup acquisition with iLoot

The same activity can be performed using the open source tool called iLoot (available at https://github.com/hackappcom/iloot). It requires Python and some dependencies. We suggest checking out the website for the latest version and requirements.

By accessing the help (iloot.py –h), we can see the various available options. We can choose the output folder if we want to download one specified snapshot, if we want the backup being downloaded in original iTunes format or with the Domain-style directories, if we want to download only specific information (for example, call history, SMS, photos, and so on), or only a specific domain, as follows:Learning iOS Forensics

To download the backup, you just only need to insert the account credentials, as shown in the following screenshot:Learning iOS Forensics

At the end of the process, you will find the backup in the output folder (the default folder’s name is /output).


In this article, we introduced the iCloud service provided by Apple to store files on remote servers and backup their iDevice devices. In particular, we showed the techniques to download the backups stored on iCloud when you know the user credentials (Apple ID and password) and when you have access to a computer where it is installed and use the iCloud Control Panel software.

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