How a 16-year-old schoolkid landed Apple in a pickle by reverse engineering iMessage


JANUARY 30, 2024

A schoolkid reverse engineered Apple’s highly secure iMessage app.

Apple’s in-house messaging application iMessage is used by more than a billion people across the world, and is automatically available on all Apple products like iPhone and iPad. However, a 16-year-old boy ended up reverse engineering the app, landing Apple in a pickle.

James Gill, a 16-year-old schoolkid, decided to make it his personal goal to figure out how iMessage works, in order to figure out how certain features of the app were developed.

Gill reverse-engineered iMessage, causing a series of events that eventually led to a US government lawsuit against Apple, where the giant tech company was accused of stifling its competition.

While a lot of third-party apps have been working on making iMessage available for Android phones, the chats between an Android phone and an iPhone user are a mess, with slow-delivered messages and lower-resolution photos.

However, James Gill eventually figured out how to bridge the gap between iPhone and Android users when it comes to iMessage. He told ABC Net, “It was more just curiosity, wanting to figure out how the thing worked and also like it’d be cool to mess around with it, you know?”

When Gill reverse engineered Apple’s iMessage

Over his summer break, Gill decided to study iMessage to figure out how a non-Apple device registered with Apple servers to use the platform. He told ABC Net, “I wanted to know how it worked, and I knew it was possible … I just kept working at it.”

He eventually figured out how to reverse engineer iMessage using a program he called “Pypush”. He ended up posting the results of his project on the code-sharing platform GitHub, where many users pointed out the commercial potential in his findings.

Gill figured out that third-party apps that make it possible for Android users to access iMessage have clunky and insecure workarounds, such as routing Android texts via external Mac servers, to convert them to iMessage.

While Apple’s main rival Google, which is powered by Android, used to push such apps on the Play Store, Apple ended up knocking it out every time. This led to regulators questioning Apple’s behaviour, which was seemingly against US antitrust laws.

The 16-year-old boy ended up messaging the CEO of the US software company Beeper, Eric Migicovsky, telling him about his research and how he reverse-engineered iMessage.

Beeper embraced this breakthrough and offered a job to Gill, using his algorithm to launch Beeper Mini, an app which helps Android users download and use iMessage securely.

Courtesy: Hindustan Times / PTI