It only takes a few seconds for an employee of one of the world’s leading hacking companies to take a locked smartphone and pull the data from it. Israeli firm Cellebrite’s technology provides a glimpse of a world of possibilities accessible to security agencies globally that worry privacy advocates.
The company has contracts in more than 115 countries, many with governments, and it shot to global prominence in March when it was reported the FBI used its technology to crack the iPhone of one of the jihadist-inspired killers in San Bernardino, California.
There have since been reports that Cellebrite was in fact not involved, and the company itself refuses to comment.
Regardless, it is recognised as one of the world’s leaders in such technology. It can reportedly take a wide range of information off devices: from the content of text messages to potentially details of where a person was at any given moment. Even messages deleted years before can be potentially retrieved.
“There are many devices that we are the only player in the world that can unlock,” Leeor Ben-Peretz, one of the company’s top executives, told AFP in English. But privacy and rights activists worry such powerful technology can wind up in the wrong hands, leading to abuses.
Cellebrite’s technology is not online hacking. It only works when the phone is physically connected to one of the firm’s devices. The company recently demonstrated its capabilities for an AFP journalist. The password on a phone was disabled and newly taken photos appeared on a computer screen, complete with the exact location and time they were taken.
The phone in the demonstration, an LG G4 run on Google’s Android operating system, is a model Cellebrite had already cracked, so the extraction did not take long. The real challenge, Ben-Peretz agrees, is staying in the lead in a race where phone manufacturers constantly launch new models and update software with ever more complicated
In the firm’s lab they have 15,000 phones — with around 150-200 new models added each month. When a new phone is launched, Ben-Peretz said, their 250-person research team races against competitors to find a chink in its armour, a process that can range from a few days to months.