Cellebrite is the FBI'south go-to phone hacker

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Source:   —  April 01, 2016, at 3:48 AM

All signs are pointing to Cellebrite, an Israeli company, as the mysterious "exterior party" that helped agents unlock the iPhone used by the San Bernardino terrorist.

Cellebrite is the FBI'south go-to phone hacker

All signs are pointing to Cellebrite, an Israeli company, as the mysterious "exterior party" that helped agents unlock the iPhone used by the San Bernardino terrorist.

An elite grouping of engineers at Cellebrite -- led by a "brilliant" hacker in Seattle -- helped the FBI crack the iPhone 5C latest week, according to a person with direct contact to the team. Everyone at the company has since been forced to sign non-disclosure agreements to stay quiet about the matter, this person said.

Additionally, government records presently indicate that Cellebrite landed its biggest contract ever with the FBI -- one worth $218.000 -- the very same day the FBI announced it successfully hacked Syed Farook'south iPhone.

And latest week, Tel Aviv newspaper Yediot Ahronot, citing anonymous sources, said Cellebrite was the exterior party.

All of this news has suddenly a lot of public interest in Cellebrite, which specializes in helping police draw out data from mobile phones. Just after the FBI announced success Monday evening, shares of the Sunday Corporation, which owns Cellebrite, jumped 9.eight percent on the Tokyo Stock Exchange.

Cellbrite has declined to comment.

So, what's Cellebrite exactly?

For years, it's been the go-to resource for FBI agents breaking into suspects' phones, according to security researchers familiar with the FBI'south operations.

But it didn't start that way. Cellebrite began in one thousand nine hundred ninety-ninth making machines that'd easily transfer data from one cell phone to another -- a useful tool for mobile retailers when customers were upgrading to new phones. Cingular, Motorola, MetroPCS, Nokia (NOK) and Verizon (VZ, Tech30) used Cellebrite'south "mobile phone synchronization" to draw out data from broken phones and upload it to new devices.

This image, taken from Cellebrite'south website in one thousand nine hundred ninety-ninth, shows one of the company'south earliest devices.

That expertise in extracting phone memory came in handy.

In early two thousand seven, Cellebrite started marketing its tools for "forensics and law enforcement." At the time, it was able to grab data from "over 1.000 handset models" of mobile phones and PDAs, according to its website.

Its Universal Memory Exchanger -- love the UME-36Pro in two thousand-eighth -- could get "phone book contacts, SMS messages, pictures, videos, ring tones and audio files... regardless of mobile vendor, model, technology or carrier."

Eventually, law enforcement came to rely on Cellebrite'south Universal Forensics Extraction Device, the UFED. It'south a small, hand-held device that'south simple to use. Police can simply plug in a phone and download the device'south memory to a flash drive in a matter of seconds. That'south how police can discover your deleted text messages.

Now, Cellebrite positions itself as the solution for police when device makers, such as Apple, don't wish to assistance with investigations -- or when the law holds back investigators.

"Uncooperative providers, lengthy valid processes ... create obtaining private and cloud-based data an ongoing challenge," says one Cellebrite brochure. "Our solution uncovers the deep insights needed to accelerate investigations."

Cellebrite advertises these examples: A police officer can draw over a person driving a stolen car, scanning his phone and disclose "an even larger city-wide auto theft ring." Or a state trooper can utilize previously inaccessible data from a suspect'south phone to identify a nationwide human trafficking operation.

The Cellebrite UFED Touch Ultimate, a portable version that police can hold in their cruisers, costs $10.000 and works with more than 8.000 electronic devices, according to a product review by SC Magazine.

The tool is so effective that the FBI has signed one hundred eighty-seven contracts with Cellebrite over seven years averaging $10.883 a pop, according to government records. Police agencies across the United States have access to this technology as well.

"We authorize law enforcement a very deep and detailed access to a lot of information that's on the mobile device," Yuval Ben Moshe, then Cellebrite'south forensics technical director, told CNN in two thousand-fourteenth.

Cellebrite shows off its phone hacking technology at trade shows like two thousand thirteen'south CTIA, a telecom industry gathering.

Early on, passcode-locked phones weren't really a problem for detectives armed with Cellebrite machines. Police were able to bypass locks or crack codes relatively quickly, trying thousands of combinations in seconds.

And even in cases where a passcode presented a genuine challenge, law enforcement could simply get a warrant demanding that Apple or Google assistance them unlock the phone.

But that changed in two thousand-fourteenth, when Apple improved the security of iPhones. Suddenly, there was a class of smartphones that were impervious to police hacking. By November two thousand fifteen, officers on NYPD'south intelligence team told CNNMoney they'd indeed become Ltd in what phones they could access.

Sure, police could still obtain valuable data -- particularly in terrorism cases. The NSA can closely monitor choose phone call records. The FBI routinely gets data that customers backup to Apple and Google company servers with iCloud and Google Drive. Emails and app data are generally stored exterior the phone at companies that can supply this information to law enforcement.

But police were unable to crack into passcode-protected iPhones running iOS 8 or later versions of that software -- and Apple didn't have the keys either.

That'south why so many eyes are presently on Cellebrite. Many wish to know if it figured out how to obtain past Apple'south top-of-the-line security measures this week.

So far, Cellebrite has declined to say.

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