[tech/rant] Michelle upgrade iPhone. iTunes needs password to access backup even though Michelle no set password. Michelle enters bajillion passwords. No luck. 5.3GB of life, gone?

Being the techie in my family, I insisted my mother, stuck in iOS 4 with her iPhone 4, upgrade to the significantly better iOS 5, which would enable her to use the Chrome app. So one evening, I set about it. iTunes reassuringly told me that before it installed iOS 5, they would make a backup of my mother’s apps and photos and videos and whatnots– for to install iOS 5, a complete wipe of the device was needed. At that point, I briefly wondered if I should make a separate backup. Nah, iTunes has it taken care of. So I clicked the fateful button.

the better notification system in iOS 5; photo courtesy of DigitalTrends

When it came time to restore my mother’s data, a window popped up:

Enter the password to unlock your iPhone backup.

Wait, what? There is a setting in iTunes to encrypt your backup and seal it with a password. However, I did not check that box, encrypt the backup, and set a password. So I then figured that Apple must mean my mother’s iTunes account password. I tried that. Several times, to make sure I had spelled it correctly. iTunes kept insisting this password was incorrect and it could not restore the iPhone’s data. Golly gee.

I backtracked a bit after this. I had never encrypted the files in the first place, thus were they really encrypted? As the computer runs Windows XP, I went to “Run” and I went to the folder “C:\Users\[NAME]\AppData\Roaming\Apple Computer\MobileSync\Backup” and copied my mother’s backup to a flash drive and plugged it into my laptop. I then downloaded iPhone Backup Extractor to my laptop. In the “Backup Details”, the program informed me, that it was, in fact, encrypted– and because it was encrypted, the iPhone Backup Extractor could not extract the data.

So, basically, I was screwed and I needed the password. What other passwords could it mean?

I scoured the internets and its forums, looking for the answer. Here are some suggestions that apparently worked for other people:

  • lockscreen pins
  • 1234
  • 0000
  • app passwords (e.g., if you installed Skype, the password to the Skype account)
  • computer login passwords
  • Apple ID passwords

I tried everything on the list. None of them worked. I desperately rooted through handwritten sticky notes of my mother’s passwords. None of them worked. I started to give up. I went to bed that night at around two in the morning, but then woke up at seven in the morning; because I was so worried; I could not sleep well. If I did not figure out the password, the iPhone might as well have been trampled by a family of Abominable Snowpeople in Tibet and buried in a cave under bat droppings for centuries. I was never going to get that data back.

However, that morning, after being slightly cheered up by a surprise gifting of an iPad 3, I realized perhaps I could use a password breaker. I downloaded the free trial of Elcomsoft’s Phone Password Breaker. Using this software, I could feed it lists of potential passwords and the password breaker would in turn try these passwords on the encrypted files. The password breaker would also slightly vary the passwords and see if these variations could decrypt the files. After a few fruitless attempts, I entered the passwords that I had already tried in iTunes to unlock the backup.

In about a split second, Elcomsoft told me they had found the password. Of course, they only gave me the first two letters, starred the rest, and told me that I had to buy the ridiculously expensive software to get the rest. No matter, the two letters already told me what I needed to know.

The password turned out to be from my mother’s Skype account. Perhaps iTunes was being temperamental when I tried the password from my mother’s Skype account? I rebooted the slow computer monster still running Windows XP and tried restoring my mother’s iPhone again using this newfound knowledge, but was summarily rejected again. I was about ready to cry at this point.

Then, I turned to Elcomsoft again at this point (though only after furiously Googling; that is all I can say). Provided Elcomsoft had the password to the encrypted files, Elcomsoft could also decrypt the files. It did. Rather successfully. So successfully that it was sort of an anticlimax, and it was almost funny that I was close to tears moments earlier.

The files are all safe and sound on my hard drive, which I intend to copy to another hard drive in the next few days. I have set up my mother’s iPhone to sync to iCloud, so I should not have any of this nonsense happen again. If the photos are lost on the phone, they are lost, but they are still in the ‘cloud’.

Though I felt a huge sense of relief as everything resolved nicely, anger started to brew within me towards Apple. Judging by the forum posts, this glitch has existed since 2010 and still persists, and Apple has still not addressed this. Thousands of people are on these forums panicking over this problem, and yet, nothing has happened. Apple, which prides itself on being simple, still has no answer for these glitches that can ruin someone’s data instantaneously. How to set up an iPad? It’s simple. How to lose your data? It’s hellishly simple, and you have absolutely no idea it is coming. It does not even have a “forgot your password?” sort of deal. Of course, I suppose my mother could be to blame for never connecting her iPhone to the computer and syncing, but come on! Again, Apple prides itself on being in tune with its base, so why are users like my mother losing their data perhaps forever over a simple software update? Despite all those iterations of iTunes and iOS, Apple still has not solved this bug.

That is horrifying.

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