What Is iCloud? (And The iCloud Lock)

You have probably heard the phrase “iCloud” in relation to the Apple iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch, or MacBook computers. However, you may not know what it is, how it works, and why it is worth using.

icloud logo

What is iCloud?

iCloud is a collection of secure online storage, backup, and sharing tools created by Apple to make the synchronization of content between their products easy.

With iCloud, changes you make on one Apple device appear on all your other devices.

For example, you could take a picture on your iPhone and it will be saved to your iCloud account. Then iCloud will synchronize with the other Apple products you own so that the same picture will appear on your iPad or MacBook computer automatically without you having to do anything.

Or you might create a reminder in your calendar on your MacBook and it will appear on the calendar on your iPhone without having to add it again.

Basically your data ‘magically’ synchronizes between your Apple devices without you having to remember to add it again, or manually copy it.

It also makes backups of your content to a secure external location as well. The external location is actually one of many data centers located around the world packed with huge computers capable of storing everyone’s backups and photos.

For example, your iPhone can be configured so it will automatically backup to ‘iCloud’ each night without you having to do anything. If your iPhone breaks and it needs to be fixed or replaced then all the information can be restored from the backup. So you don’t lose things like pictures, appointments, notes, messages, passwords, or credit card information and have to spend ages adding them.

You can also store and share things such as music, photos, contacts, notes, and documents.

You can even share your location with other family members via family sharing if you wish.

Further reading: how to sign in to iCloud.

What does iCloud backup and keep safe?


Here are some of the tools included with iCloud [4] that can be used to backup, share, and keep safe:

Photos

Manage and synchronize your pictures and video

Photos

iCloud Photos automatically and securely stores all your photos and videos and keeps them up to date on all your devices and on iCloud.com. Your original, full-resolution photos are uploaded to iCloud, while smaller versions are kept on your device. It is easy to share photos and videos with people you choose, and invite them to add comments and share photos and videos with you via Shared Albums.

Backup and restore

Automatic backups

Backup

iCloud can automatically back up your iOS and iPadOS devices over Wi-Fi when your device is turned on, locked, and connected to a power source. You can use your iCloud backup to restore your iPhone or iPad or easily set up a new one.

Share with your family

Share with your family

family sharing

Family Sharing lets up to 6 family members share their iTunes Store, App Store, and Apple Books purchases without sharing accounts. Pay for family purchases with the same credit card and approve children’s spending straight from a parent’s device. Plus, share iCloud storage, photos, calendars, reminders, locations, and more.

Messages

Access your Apple text messages across all your devices

messages

Turn on iCloud Messages to store messages from your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, and Mac in iCloud. Your messages are kept up to date on all your devices. You can start a conversation on one device and finish it on another.

Store credit card and passwords

Use iCloud Keychain

iCloud keygen

Keep your passwords, credit card information up to date, and have them entered automatically on your iPhone, iPad, and Mac.

Store files

Keep files securely stored in iCloud Drive

iCloud files

Securely store and organize your files in iCloud Drive. Access them across all your devices and on iCloud.com. You can even share them with a private link. You can also add your Mac Desktop and Documents folders to iCloud Drive so they are available everywhere.

Locate your device or friends

Locate your devices or your friends

locate friends

Use Find My on your iPhone, iPad, iPod touch, or Mac to locate a lost device, lock and track it, or remotely erase it. You can also share your location with friends and family and see their locations on a map. On iCloud.com, use Find My iPhone to locate devices and Find My Friends to locate people.

Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, and Reminders

Keep Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, and Reminders up to date

mail contacts

Keep apps like Mail, Contacts, Calendar, Notes, and Reminders up to date across all your devices with iCloud. When you make a change on one device, your information is updated everywhere.

Collaboration with others

Collaborate with Pages, Numbers, and Keynote

collaborate

Create a document, presentation, or spreadsheet, and access it on all your devices with iCloud. You can even edit it on the web with iCloud.com. Share a file with your friends and colleagues — collaborators can see any edits as they are made.

Where is iCloud?

Apple has 11 data centers that support all of the iCloud services. The company has 6 data centers in the United States, 2 in Denmark, and 3 in Asia [5].

This is where all of the iCloud data is stored when you use any of the iCloud services.

Is iCloud secure?

All iCloud accounts are secured using a username and password. The account contents are encrypted on Apple’s data centers to prevent access by hackers. This is true, even for users in China.

Only the account owner can see, or share the contents of their account with other people.

However, it was claimed that Apple’s iCloud service, including iCloud Drive and backups, does not provide end-to-end encryption [3]. This means users’ information is unsecured while being transmitted between the device and the data center allowing it to be intercept and viewed by unauthorized persons.

Should I use iCloud?

iCloud is optional so you don’t have to use it on your device. To avoid using it simply don’t sign in with your Apple ID when asked.

You can still use your device without iCloud but with some limitations.

The main limitation you’ll have is that you won’t be able to share, secure, backup, store, or collaborate properly using the Apps and tools described above.

You also wouldn’t be able to make App, Book, or Music purchases as you haven’t signed in with your Apple ID.

However, iCloud offers some good features and is free so it doesn’t make sense to avoid using it.

Reasons to Use iCloud on Apple Devices

    1. Easy to setup and use
    2. Free to use (up to 5GB)
    3. Seamless document and photo sharing
    4. Automatic daily device backups
    5. Automatic photo backups
    6. Store important files securely
    7. Collaborate with others on documents, presentations, or spreadsheets
    8. Securely store credit card and password data
    9. Restore content quickly and easily
    10. Share Apps, Music, and more with family members
    11. Locate your device, friends, or family
    12. Secure your device to discourage theft

How much storage space do I get with iCloud?

You will get 5GB included in your iCloud account for free when you set up your Apple ID.

However, this 5GB is for all your devices so it can run out quickly when you consider it can hold your pictures, files, and backups.

Apple allows you to upgrade the 5GB limit but you will need to pay a small monthly fee to do so:

  • 50GB: 79p GBP /99c USD per month
  • 200GB: £2.49 GBP / $2.99 USD per month
  • 2TB: £6.99 GBP / $9.99 USD per month

The iCloud storage can be shared between family members.

Increasing the storage space

Upgrade iCloud Storage Space

If you decide to upgrade your storage you can do this from your iPhone or iPad:

  1. Tap settings
  2. Tap your name at the top
  3. Tap iCloud
  4. Tap Manage Storage
  5.  Tap Change Storage Plan
  6.  Select the storage size you want and follow the instructions to set it up

What devices can use iCloud?

You can use iCloud on all modern Apple devices including their mobile products such as iPhone and iPad, their computers such as MacBook, and even on newer Apple Watches.

The table below shows the version of the operating system needed on each type of device to be able to use iCloud [6].

Product Operating system needed
Apple computers MacOS 10.7.5 or newer
iPhone iOS 5 or newer
iPad iOS 5 or newer
Apple Watch watchOS 7 or newer
Windows computers Windows 10 or newer

What is the iCloud lock?

The iCloud Lock is the name of the security system used by Apple to ensure its products are only usable by the owner.

If anyone apart from the owner attempts to reset the product to use it as their own they will be asked for the owner’s Apple ID and password first. Without these details, they will not be allowed to reset the device – making it unusable.

Apple has made iCloud set up an integral part of the initial device configuration. Owners will be asked to set up iCloud when they first set up your device – something that is strongly recommended [7].

Once completed the device will be permanently linked to the owner’s iCloud account.

This security system is popularly known as the iCloud Lock, Activation Lock, or the iCloud Activation Lock [1].

And with watchOS 7 and later, you can use Activation Lock to protect your Apple Watch too.

Can I get locked out of my own iCloud account?

Yes, if you forget your username or password you can get locked out of your own account. You can reset your details if this happens so you can regain access.

If you are still struggling to remember your Apple ID or password and want to remove the iCloud Activation Lock you can try a number of things such as asking Apple to help.

What is the purpose of the iCloud lock?

It puts people off stealing your device as it will be unusable by anyone else.

However, almost 50% of second-hand iPhones bought and sold legitimately have the iCloud lock left on by accident.

This means buyers can’t use them.

This issue has spawned a huge number of websites, services, and software that claim to be able to unlock or bypass the iCloud lock.

Could iCloud get hacked?

After the large scale hack of celebrity iCloud accounts, there has been an increased awareness of the issue of hacking iCloud. People are asking themselves is iCloud safe?

For those of you that haven’t heard about this hack…

…back in 2014, 500 private photographs of celebrities were published.

These pictures were mainly of women in compromising poses.

It was thought there was a breach of the iCloud security which allowed hackers unlimited attempts at guessing passwords.

Analysts questioned the security of iCloud. There was particular concern about the safety of private information in the iCloud environment.

Subsequent analysis showed that it was more likely that the hack was done using a phishing attack.

However, the incident proved that iCloud had its weak spots when it comes to tracking and remote locking.

Criminals are now using the same ‘phishing’ techniques against you and me.

Analysis carried out by Trend Micro shows that iCloud ‘phishing’ is being done on an industrial scale to allow the resale of stolen iPhones.

The process works like this:

  1. The criminals steal your iPhone and examine it to get your iCloud email.
  2. They send an email pretending to be from Apple saying that your device has been recovered.
  3. Within the email, they ask you to click a link to login to your iCloud account to verify it is your device.
  4. The link you clicked actually takes you to a spoofed website that looks like iCloud but isn’t.
  5. Your login details are stored on the website and used by the gang for unlocking your iCloud account from your iPhone.
  6. The criminals then have the ability to look at all your private data, including pictures and your Apple Wallet.
  7. They can also sell your iPhone as it no longer has an iCloud lock on it.

“These Apple iCloud phishers run their business using a set of cybercriminal tools that include MagicApp, Applekit, and Find My iPhone (FMI.php) framework to automate iCloud unlocks in order to resell the device in underground and gray markets,” the researchers say.

The FM1.php script allows phishing, Applekit creates a network of hijacked devices, and MagicApp automates iPhone unlocking.

These tools can be used to block Apple’s services, remove the iCloud lock and it’s linked to the original owner, and set up the device for sale elsewhere.

The criminal gangs behind these services seem to be based in Kosovo, India, North Africa, and the Philippines.

So there are no bugs or vulnerabilities in the iCloud security itself but by the use of phishing and some clever coding, the criminals can hijack stolen phones and unlocked them.

Apple is aware of these issues and will be using this information to improve iCloud security to make it harder to exploit.

If you are interested in finding out more Tend Micro produced a video giving the background of the hack and how to protect yourself in a YouTube video. [2]

References

[1] What is the iCloud ‘Find My iPhone’ Lock?
[2] Protect yourself online (Trend Micro YouTube video)
[3] Does iCloud use client-side encryption?
[4] iCloud features
[5] iCloud features and information
[6] System requirements for iCloud
[7] iCloud setup instructions

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