What Is iCloud (And The iCloud Lock)?

icloud logoOne of the most common questions I get asked is ‘what is iCloud?’. This lead me to do some research on Apple’s popular backup and storage solution so that I can answer this question as fully as possible.

iCloud is a storage system created by Apple. It allows owners of any Apple products – such as MacBook, iPhone, iPad – to store and backup photos, videos, or documents using it.

It also lets you share pictures and other stuff between your different apple products. For example you may take a picture on your iPhone and you will be able to see it from your MacBook. 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 stuff ‘magically’ moves between your Apple devices without you having to remember to move it.

It also makes backups of your stuff too. For example your iPhone can be setup so it will backup it’s contents to ‘iCloud’ each night. 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 those important pictures or have to spend ages configuring things.

You can also share music, photos, and your location with other family members via family sharing.

iCloud benefits

  1. Security
    Your device can’t be used by anyone else if stolen unless they can break into your iCloud account.
  2. More storage space
    iCloud offers 5GB of free additional space. More can be purchased for pennies per month.
  3. Synchronize stuff between your Apple products
    As well as having more room you can also synchronize photos, calendars and more between different Apple products you own. For example photos can be taken on your iPhone and be sent to your iPad or MacBook.
  4. Automated backups
    You can also backup your device. This can be configured so it is done automatically without you even knowing (or caring). The beauty of this is that if your device breaks you can get a replacement and restore everything onto it. This means your new device will have all the stuff that was on your broken device without you having to manually copy stuff around.

Who 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 the latest Apple Watch.

ProductOperating system needed
Apple computersMacOS 10.7.5 or newer
iPhoneiOS 7 or newer
iPadiOS 7 or newer
Windows computersWindows 7 or newer

iCloud video tutorial

What is the iCloud Lock?

When you buy an Apple portable device such as an iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch you are asked to secure it to your iCloud account when you first set it up. This is often known as the iPhone activation lock.

If you ever lose your device or have it stolen then you can sign in to your iCloud account online to find it, remotely delete it, or prevent it being used by anyone else.

It helps you keep your device secure, even if it’s in the wrong hands, and can improve your chances of recovering it. Even if you erase your device remotely, it can continue to deter anyone from reactivating your device without your permission. All you need to do is keep Find My iPhone turned on, and remember your Apple ID and password.

And with watchOS 2 and later, you can use Activation Lock to protect your Apple Watch too.

What is its purpose?

This is actually a good idea in some ways – 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 locked – normally left on by accident.

This means buyers can’t use them.

How does it work?

If the original owner of your iPhone turned on a feature called ‘Find My iPhone‘ then it will automatically link their iCloud account to the iPhone.

The idea is to help them find their device if it is lost or stolen. If the worst comes to the worst and they can’t get their iPhone back then they can use ‘Find My iPhone‘ to erase the contents of the phone and lock it permanently.

Obviously, the idea behind this is to deter theft which is great. However, if you buy a used iPhone, iPad or even Apple Watch and the previous owner forgot to remove it from their ‘Find My iPhone’ account then it is locked to the old owner’s iCloud account.

This means you can’t use it. So the security on iCloud may disable the iPhone you bought in good faith and make it unusable.

What is the easiest way to remove it?

The easiest way to have your iCloud unlocked is by contacting the seller, or original owner of the device and asking them to remove it from ‘Find My iPhone’ iCloud removal is a simple process and can be done from any computer or smartphone that can connect to the internet via iCloud.com.

They simply:

  1. Sign in to iCloud.com or the Find My iPhone app on another Apple device
  2. Select the device
  3. Click Erase
  4. After the device has been erased, click Remove from Account

Read the full article describing the steps an owner should follow before selling their device here: https://support.apple.com/en-us/HT201351.

This will remove the lock on your device.

The next thing you need to do is check the status of the device you just bought to see if it has been stolen. This used to be possible using Apple’s online tool but is no longer possible as they disabled it.

You have 2 options now that Apple has removed the tool:

  1. Inside the US: You can use the CTIA website to check the device has not been stolen.
  2. Outside the US: Contact your local Apple store and ask them to check. https://www.apple.com/retail/

Apple removed the tool from their website on January 29th 2017 without any warning. [2]

Rumour has it that Chinese hackers had been using the tool to find unlocked devices serial numbers and used them to reset iPhone serial numbers remove locks on an industrial scale. This means you can’t check the status of your Apple device online for now. It is unknown if the tool will ever return.

If it is locked due to theft you may still be able to bypass the iCloud activation as described later in this article and get some functionality

Don’t know how to find your IMEI for your iPhone?

Before you begin you need to know the IMEI for your device.

  • Option 1: Dial *#06#
  • Option 2: If you have an iPhone 5 or newer, your IMEI is printed on the back of the device
  • Option 3:If your iPhone is not activated, there will be a little “i” button on the screen, tap it and you’ll see the IMEI

In future, it is best to request this number from the seller before you buy it to make sure the item has not been stolen or locked by the previous owner.

You simply ask Apple to check the device on your behalf and can then buy it safe in the knowledge it hasn’t been stolen and locked permanently.

What if you don’t know the iCloud password?

If you have already bought a used iPhone, iPad or Apple Watch and you can’t set it up because it asks for the previous owners details then you need to ask them to remove their iCloud account as described above.

If you can’t get in touch with the previous owner you won’t be able to setup the device due to the Apple activation lock. This lock links the iCloud account to your phone, tablet, or watch. Until this link is removed the device is unusable by anyone except the previous owner.

So what options do you have to remove the activation lock? You can make your device usable by performing an activation lock bypass or unlock.

How do hackers break into iCloud?

After the large scale hack of celebrity iCloud accounts there has been an increased awareness of this issue. 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 woman, and many contained nudity.

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 it weak spots when it comes to tracking and remote locking.

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

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.

If you are considering buying a used iPhone you should check if it has been blacklisted. In the US you can use the CTIA website to check the iPhone’s IMEI to ensure it has not been stolen. Elsewhere in the world contact your local Apple store.

“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 link to the original owner, and setup the device for sale elsewhere.

The criminals 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 being using this information to improve iCloud security to make it harder to exploit.


  1. What is the iCloud find my iPhone lock?
  2. Apple removes tool to check lock status

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