Do iPhone Versions Differ in Security?

Most of us know that the next iPhone series is going to be faster, have a better camera, offer superior battery life and may even come with a better display. We expect hardware upgrades. Otherwise, we’d just buy an older phone and be done with it. The question most of us fail to ask is whether or not the newer device is more secure.


The same can be said of Apple’s iOS. Each time a version update pops up, we’re wondering what the new features might be. Yet there’s more to an update than just changes to the interface and compatibility with new toys. Every update changes security, even if only a little.

So how do different iPhones and iOS versions differ in their security? Let’s take a brief walk through iPhone history and see.

iPhone 5S Additions

A few years ago, the iPhone 5S made a major step in the world of digital security by introducing a revolutionary new form of security: TouchID. TouchID, accompanied by iOS7, offered users the ability to unlock their phones using their thumbprint instead of a 4-digit PIN.

Some of the advantages of TouchID are obvious—users without your thumb are unable to unlock the device. Being able to use biometric authentication also requires less effort on the user’s part because there’s no need to remember a password and it only takes a single button press to unlock the screen.

Of course, TouchID has its own problems as well. The thumbprint reader can become worn down with use, as we’ve seen with each new iPhone that continues use of the function. Physical coercion can also be used to forcibly unlock the phone, although the situation is rare.

The 5S also included some other bonuses, including disabling the ability for thieves to turn off Find My iPhone and a change to how device reset works (it would still save your Apple ID, meaning a reset couldn’t be used to bypass your PIN).

iPhone 6 Additions

Following the iPhone 5 series, the iPhone 6 expanded on security further with the release of iOS8 and a few more security features. And while the iPhone 6 did occasionally suffer from hardware related issues, particularly regarding the battery, its main addition continues to be of value to all iPhone users.

The biggest feature, by far, was the introduction of support for always-on Virtual Private Networks (VPNs). Prior to the iPhone 6, VPNs had to be used selectively and were thus a major burden on the user. Allowing users to effectively connect permanently to a VPN across all devices meant a major boost to internet security.

For those unfamiliar with VPNs, you may want to read this review and guide about VPNs for iPhone written by Secure Thoughts. In short, VPNs help provide security by encrypting one’s internet connection and routing traffic through a secure, remote server. For iPhone users, that means safety when connecting to public networks that are otherwise a major risk, particularly with the growth of hacking.

Besides adding more VPN support, iOS8 on the iPhone 6 also added the ability to password protect all personal files, including from Apple itself. This is an important feature because even if your device were to be found unlocked, it would prevent the alteration of files without the correct password.

This change came largely in response to the infamous 2014 iCloud hack, where multiple celebrities were tricked into handing over their passwords, resulting in a major photo leak to the public (many of which were compromising or embarrassing photos). It did not, however, address the actual problem; phishing still remains unburdened by Apple’s security measures.

More Security in iOS9

Between hardware generations, iOS9 was released and implemented additional security benefits to the iPhone 6 series. In addition to the TouchID system, iOS9 added the option to increase the length of your 4-digit PIN to 6-digits (and in fact became the default, although 4-digits was still an option).

On top of that, Apple also permitted the use of traditional passwords on the lockscreen similar to old PC computer logins. Adding password support essentially means adding unlimited password complexity, at the option of the user.

For better or worse, these features are entirely optional. The amount of security added by iOS9 depends entirely on the user’s choices. It could be said that this update was neutral as a result. Yet following iOS9’s improvements, the next version might actually be considered a loss at best and a danger at worst.

iPhone 7 and the Dangers of the iOS10 Lockscreen

Around the same time the iPhone 7 was released, iOS10 was also pushed to consumers. It came with the usual security fixes—something that all iOS updates include—as well as some changes to the interface.

The biggest change was to the lockscreen, which gained a huge bump in functionality by allowing access to certain apps, including iMessage without ever unlocking the phone. Functionally, this seemed pretty good.

Yet we quickly learned that what we gained in function, we lost in security. Being able to use apps without unlocking the phone also means that people without access to the device can now use some of the iPhone’s features. They can send a message on behalf of the person and possibly do some damage to their reputation. So far, this issue remains, although it’s possible to edit the lockscreen.

The iPhone Going Forward

Apple’s flagship phones are almost certain to remember popular. Though some features may change and security will go up and down, each update generally seems to be beneficial for protecting users from outside threats.

And if anything, that’s really the take home message. Updating to the latest hardware and software with Apple typically means getting better security. Software is the biggest guarantee—even with problems on the lockscreen, updates to iOS mean fixes in loopholes and exploits.

So what do you think? Will you continue to keep your iPhone up to date? Tell us what you think about how Apple handles security.

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