We received an iPhone 8 for standard mail-in data recovery service. The phone was completely unresponsive with no signs of life. We recover data from thousands of phones with a similar presentation, and people often ask us how we do it. There is no magic--it is just a ton of experience, and mindset. Let's walk through this case to show you how we think.
Unlike many of our liquid damaged cases, this phone physically looked pristine. There were no signs of bend, hard drop, or water on the phone housing or inside it. It looked like a phone that had never been opened. The history was that it had simply stopped working one day.
Even though our expertise is microsoldering and logic board repair, we always start every case with "Rule #1"
This means that we first rule out straightforward problems by isolating the logic board--the heart and soul of your phone--from the pieces that plug into board. To do this we extract the logic board and attempt to boot it in a known good test jig. Unfortunately, this particular logic board did not boot right up and we knew that we had to find and solve a board level problem to get to the data.
Many users suggest---why not simply remove the memory chip and read the data? Oh if it only it were that easy. This is not a valid path to data recovery for today's phones because of chip-encryption. It makes sense. If anyone could indeed gain access to user data simply by reading it from the memory chip, then we may as well not even use passcodes at all. But this is not the case. The only way to decrypt the data into meaningful information is to make it boot as designed--the phone must be able to retrieve keys stored by the CPU, the AP EEPROM and the NAND memory chip and execute the normal bootloader, load firmware, and open the iOS to pass the trust dialog. Without each of those steps, the data will remain encrypted. From the CIA to dark web hackers there is universal agreement that today's encryption would take more than a human lifetime to crack, and is not a feasible method for data recovery.
While it can be a valid strategy to transfer the data and key-containing chips to a receiver board, it is often far less risky to simply figure out why the original board won't turn on and solve that problem. We always attempt to recover data with the least invasive methods first.
For this dead iPhone 8, the next step was a detailed microscope examination of the logic board. We found that the logic board had no significant deviation from normal. We then proceeded to an electrical examination. From the 5v0 USB voltage input, this phone would consume only 0.36 amps. This is quite low, but not zero. It was a clue. From the 4.3V battery voltage input, the phone would consume even less. Another symptom. A pattern begins to emerge.
What disease presents this way? The art of logic board troubleshooting for data recovery combines the skills of an experimental scientist, a physician, and a detective. iPhones typically fail for *a reason* rather than randomly. In this case, the most likely mechanism for the death of this iPhone was charger damage. Most users are never taught that the iPhone lightning cable has a surge protector chip buried inside the cable. This protection chip is missing from "gas station chargers" which are ubiquitous. In turn, damage from chargers is a very common mechanism for failure in a phone with no physical signs of injury.
From our experience, we found a pattern recognition match between the physical and electrical presentation of this phone, and ones that we have solved before. We knew that damage to the tigris chip on the logic board can cause a phone to fail in the same way as our case phone.
The next step was to replace the tigris chip on the board to test this theory. With a brief microsurgery, we used hot air to melt the solder and remove the pea-sized tigris chip from the logic board. The pads were cleared of old solder with an iron, and a fresh chip was installed.
We were able to enter the passcode and decrypt the data. With a usb connection we could offload all of the pictures, videos, notes, messages, contacts and a full iTunes backup to a usb drive. For this iPhone 8, the logic board had only had a single chip failure that had been completely solved during the data recovery investigation. After getting a full data extraction, we reassembled the now-repaired logic board into the housing it arrived in. Pleasantly, the logic board was now able to charge the native battery and "be a phone again" after recovery. This family will be receiving their data extracted and parsed to a usb drive, and as a bonus they will be getting back a working phone!
This case was an example of a typical data recovery. By combining a physician mindset, pattern recognition, crisp observation and a little bit of experimental detective work, we are able to solve the toughest cases and bring most dead iPhones back to life to recover those memories trapped inside the phone.