We’ve been running chip-off training since 2013 and during that time we’ve taught a lot of delegates how to recover evidence from locked BlackBerry handsets. It feels like the right time to dispel some myths about chip-off and explain how the technique is just as relevant as it’s ever been (despite BlackBerry’s demise!)
MYTH 1 – Chip-off is only useful for locked BlackBerrys (and we hardly see any these days)
It’s true that locked BlackBerrys have historically been the most common scenario when chip-off has been utilised, but the same techniques can be applied to other devices with great results. Previous course delegates are routinely using chip-off techniques to secure physical extractions of Windows Phone devices which can’t be performed in commercial tools as well as locked and unsupported Android devices where even Direct eMMC (ISP) isn’t viable.
Delegates on our Flash Memory Chip Removal course perform chip-off on Nokia Lumia and Sony Xperia devices for which chip-off is ideally suited.
MYTH 2 – Chip-off is destructive to the device
Chip-off is typically performed using hot air to de-solder the flash memory from the printed circuit board (PCB) of the device, and usually components are damaged during the process. In other words, chip-off is undertaken in such a way that the device won’t work again (but acquiring the memory contents can justify this). But it doesn’t need to be so.
Using the right techniques, it’s possible to de-solder the flash memory chip (whilst protecting the rest of the device), read the chip and then re-solder it and re-assemble the device. If the device can be used after chip-off then new opportunities arise, such as entering passwords (recovered from the extracted data) into the device. This means that the device itself can be used to unlock and decrypt stored data and a manual examination or logical extraction can be performed. The approach won’t work in every case (so the process should still be assumed to be destructive), but the ability to restore the device to a working condition is extremely powerful.
We have been busy refining such techniques; our record is de-soldering and re-soldering the same eMMC chip ten times and the handset still works! We now teach delegates how to re-solder flash memory chips after data has been extracted from them.
MYTH 3 – Chip-off is really expensive
The simple answer to this is that chip-off can be expensive, but it absolutely doesn’t need to be. Infra-red rework stations can be used to de-solder flash memory chips instead of using a hot-air approach. Although these can be effective, they are expensive and are not well suited to flash memory which has been glued to the PCB using epoxy. For these reasons we use a cheaper and more flexible approach of hot air guns and hot air pencils in our training.
The equipment needed to de-solder and extract data from the eMMC flash memory chips found in almost all current smartphones and tablets can be purchased for under £2,000(including a fume extraction system). For organisations already outsourcing devices for chip-off, these equipment costs are easy to justify.