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Secure Enclave, Mac SSD hardware encryption and the future of FileVault

January 8, 2018 4 comments

The iMac Pro introduced a number of new features, but one that may have been little noticed is the introduction of hardware encryption for the iMac Pro’s SSD storage. Apple references the hardware encryption on the iMac Pro page this way:

T2 also makes iMac Pro even more secure, thanks to a Secure Enclave coprocessor that provides the foundation for new encrypted storage and secure boot capabilities. The data on your SSD is encrypted using dedicated AES hardware with no effect on the SSD’s performance, while keeping the Intel Xeon processor free for your compute tasks.

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This hardware encryption means that, even if FileVault is not enabled, the data stored on the iMac Pro’s SSD storage is encrypted. What’s more, the key to unlock the encryption is stored in the iMac Pro’s Secure Enclave and never leaves the machine. Physically remove the SSD storage from the iMac Pro and you won’t be able to access any data stored on the SSD, even if you have an otherwise identical iMac Pro available.

For those with knowledge of how Apple protects data stored on iOS devices, this should sound familiar. The main difference between the iOS and macOS implementation at this point appears to be that macOS does not have the equivalent passcode lock screen.

Iphone7 ios11 passcode lock screen

Instead, the needed encryption key to unlock the hardware encryption is automatically provided by the Secure Enclave when the iMac Pro boots. This behavior is just like that seen on an iOS device where a passcode has not been enabled.

This is referenced when you run the following command on an iMac Pro:

diskutil apfs list

On an iMac Pro where FileVault is not enabled, FileVault is shown with the following status:

FileVault: No (Encrypted at rest)

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This recognizes that encryption is available, but that the encryption only provides protection when the data is at rest. “Data at rest” in this context should be understood to mean when the Secure Enclave has not provided the needed encryption unlock key, which would be the case in either of the following scenarios:

  1. The iMac Pro is off.
  2. The SSD storage has been removed from the iMac Pro.

For more, please see below the jump.

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