How iPhone’s Internal Hardware Can Be Secured

Security on Apple devices is a constant concern in modern life. With so many people using iPhones, MacBooks, iPads, and Apple Watches throughout each day, it’s of the utmost importance that operations are kept safe. For the most part, this is something the company does a good job of addressing. Security updates are released with relative regularity, and Apple’s software and programs have a generally strong reputation for escaping significant cybersecurity issues.

Despite all of this, there is an almost surprising lack of focus on the security of Apple’s hardware — at least where internal mechanisms are concerned. On the outside, we tend to take for granted that Face ID and two-factor authentication will make our Apple devices secure in the event they should fall into the wrong hands. In fact, there are even arguments that Face ID is more secure than some alternatives, which will make some Apple users feel even better about the mechanism.

Concerning the internals though, Apple also needs to be sure that its hardware technology is protected. This can serve three purposes: first to keep people from extracting user data from a stolen or discarded phone; second, to keep the technology from being easily replicable in the wrong hands; and third, to keep skilled criminals from using disassembled hardware to concoct more sophisticated attacks on other devices.

A number of steps can be taken to make internal mechanisms — and namely printed circuit boards and computing chips — from being vulnerable to these types of issues. But three, in particular, stand out:

  • Hard & Dense PCB Design – Harder materials and denser connections within smartphone PCBs present challenges for those who would seek to gain anything from them. It’s a straightforward matter, but they’re simply harder to take apart and make sense of without damaging. Apple uses third-party suppliers for its PCBs, but does appear to primarily use high-density PCBs.
  • Secure Sharing Of Designs – Software-based designs for PCBs are inevitably shared and transferred throughout the production process. And naturally, this needs to be done carefully if the schematics and details of the PCBs are to remain secure. We can’t speak to how Apple handles this process exactly, but generally, designers use PCB to gerber converters specifically to simplify and secure the sharing process. Basically, this can make it easy to share a PCB design, and do so exclusively with an intended recipient (such as a contract manufacturer).
  • Obscured Chips & Connections – Generally, a device’s internal mechanisms can also be protected to some extent by an effective masking of component labels. With Apple, this may not be particularly relevant. It’s not difficult to determine what kind of chip the company is using in a given device, for instance (we’re already hearing about the A14 Bionic chip for the iPhone 12). But to whatever degree possible, the disguise of components and connections can also make a phone’s internal hardware less decipherable to a hacker or thief.

Fortunately none of these efforts demand anything of consumers. But they are among the efforts and factors that go into making our phones and other devices secure, even beyond the more commonly discussed hardware and software issues.