By Stephen Schenck | July 10, 2012 5:39 PM
Last week, Apple users started noticing some very strange behavior from the company’s App Store. Upon updating certain apps they has previously installed, users would start running into crashes all of a sudden, unable to get affected apps to load. This behavior wasn’t exclusive to iOS, either, and even Mac apps ran into similar trouble.
Theories about what was causing this app corruption abounded, and Apple eventually responded with a statement blaming the issue on a temporary problem with a server performing DRM functions. Was this just a random glitch, though, or a sign of some new DRM on the horizon?
First, let’s look at how iOS app DRM currently functions. Apple’s been using FairPlay to secure the files it sells since back in the iPod days, when it only had to worry about music. Obviously, Apple doesn’t want you handing out copies of an app you paid for to all your buddies for free, so it needs to tie those downloads to certain accounts; that’s where FairPlay comes in.
When you download a purchase from the App Store, Apple’s servers encrypt some data so that it can only be decrypted with the key tied to your iTunes account. When you go to run an app, iOS attempts to decrypt this data; if the FairPlay key on your phone isn’t the one affiliated with the account that bough the app, the decryption will fail, and the app will refuse to run.
Basically, that mismatch between your phone’s key and the data it was expecting the key would decrypt is what was at the heart of last week’s problems.
So far, this sounds like an open-and-shut case, so why are we asking about the possibility that Apple is working on some new DRM measures? Well, for starers, Apple runs a pretty tight ship. While the impact of last week’s incident now seems minimal, it’s very surprising that Apple would let such a gaff occur in the first place. What could cause a server that had been delivering DRM-signed apps day-in and day-out without fail, to suddenly start malfunctioning in this manner?
This is just speculation for the moment, but introducing some newly-overhauled DRM code sure might create the potential for disaster, and the upcoming public arrival of iOS 6 might be just the opportunity for presenting a new twist on FairPlay.
Let’s say that Apple is planning to add some new protection to App Store purchases. What might it be planning? Right now, iOS app piracy involves repackaging purchased apps with that encrypted bit already decrypted, and then telling iOS not to bother trying to decrypt things again when the app is run. Normally, the latter’s not allowed, but a jailbroken iPad or iPhone has no issues running such unencrypted apps. A way to prevent that from happening would be a magic bullet of sorts against piracy.
We’re expecting a new processor for the iPhone 5, possibly based on Samsung’s Exynos quad chips. Apple might try putting an end to jailbreaking by taking advantage of hardware on such a new chip to ensure that only legitimate, encrypted apps are ever allowed to execute – fully encrypted apps, too, not just encrypted headers. We’re not saying that such a strategy sounds particularly likely, but if the new system was different enough to require Apple’s servers juggling support for multiple types of DRM at the same time, as some users continue to use older hardware, and others migrate to devices with this new silicon, that might end up creating just the sort of situation that could be responsible for last week’s bugs.
Could this really all happen, though? Like we said, this is just one guess at what could be going on behind the scenes, and there’s just not the evidence to support such a theory. That doesn’t mean we won’t see something like it transpire, but we’re going to need quite a bit more convincing before we’re ready to say that Apple is, indeed, planning new measures to secure its interests against piracy.