Did Cellebrite Decrypt the San Bernardino iPhone?

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

March 29, 2016

The FBI has dropped its case against Apple in the San Bernardino case because it has found a way into the encrypted phone without its help. Although it remains unconfirmed at the moment, it is believed that support may have come from mobile forensics firm Cellebrite.

The sudden end to the case (which was officially filed for by the Justice Department on Monday afternoon) has requested for the California court to drop all proceedings against the prominent technology firm.  The FBI had been demanding for Apple to design special software to bypass the time delay constraints that enable that particular model of iPhone’s encryption.

A statement explaining why the case has been dropped was released Monday by United States Attorney Eileen M. Decker,

‘The government has asked a United States Magistrate Judge in Riverside, California to vacate her order compelling Apple to assist the FBI in unlocking the iPhone.

Our decision to conclude the litigation was based solely on the fact that, with the recent assistance of a third party, we are now able to unlock that iPhone without compromising any information on the phone…. Although this step in the investigation is now complete, we will continue to explore every lead, and seek any appropriate legal process, to ensure our investigation collects all of the evidence related to this terrorist attack.’

Although nobody is entirely certain, the rumor is that an Israeli tech firm called Cellebrite has indeed managed to unlock Syed Rizwan Farook’s iPhone for the FBI. The exact method used to penetrate the encryption remains tightly guarded at this point. It is thought, however, that the smartphone has been brute forced and that the method may well be executable on similar iPhones, should intelligence agencies’ require it.

Who exactly is Cellebrite?

Cellebrite calls itself a mobile forensics firm and is thought to have offered the FBI help over a week ago. At that point the FBI delayed the ongoing case in California – to follow up on the third-party offer – which it would now appear has been successful.

For now, whether it was Cellebrite that helped the FBI remains unknown. Cellebrite has itself refused to comment, but the timing of the details which first appeared in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, and the sudden announcement that a third party has cracked the encryption – although circumstantial – seems reasonable.

Yedioth Ahranoth had reported last Wednesday that if Cellebrite is successful in their task, Apple’s help would no longer be needed in the San Bernardino case. A prediction that now appears to have come true. Public records show that the FBI last week agreed on the sum of $15,278 for an ‘action obligation’ with the Israeli-based firm. As such, it would appear that the evidence does indeed demonstrate – that it may well have been Cellebrite – that helped US authorities to decrypt the infamous iPhone.

Cellebrite, which was founded in 1999, is headquartered in Petah Tikva, Israel. The money in the ‘action obligation’, however, clearly appears to be contracted to Cellebrite USA Corp: a subsidiary of Cellebrite that is itself based in Parsippany, New Jersey. Whether this means that the iPhone never actually left the US – and was simply decrypted in NJ – is anybody’s guess.

The various subsidiaries of Cellebrite are involved in what it describes on its website as ‘unparalleled data extraction and analysis capabilities optimized for both lab and field personnel’. A subsidiary called ‘Cellebrite Mobile Forensics’ was founded in 2007 and ‘produces software and hardware for mobile forensics purposes used by federal, state, and local law enforcement; intelligence agencies; military branches; corporate security and investigations; law firms; and private digital forensic examiners in more than 60 countries.’

Cellebrite is a subsidiary of a Japanese firm

Also interesting, all of the Cellebrite subsidiaries: Cellebrite, Cellebrite USA Corp, and Cellebrite GmbH (Paderborn Germany) are in fact entirely owned by Sun Corporation (SunSoft), ‘a publicly traded company listed on JASDAQ (6736/JQ) based in Nagoya, Japan’. As to whether Sun Corporation (the parent company) can now also decrypt iPhones, is again anybody’s guess. Although it would seem to stand to reason that it does now indeed possess that ability.

Justice Department spokeswoman Melanie Newman confirmed on Monday that despite this latest case having been dropped against Apple, the problem could easily resurface in the future – should an iPhone of a different model find itself to be involved in an ongoing investigation –

‘It remains a priority for the government to ensure that law enforcement can obtain crucial digital information to protect national security and public safety, either with cooperation from relevant parties or through the court system when cooperation fails.We will continue to pursue all available options for this mission, including seeking the cooperation of manufacturers and relying upon the creativity of both the public and private sectors,’ she said.

In what can be seen as somewhat of an agreement between the Justice Department and Apple (that there will indeed be inevitable friction at some point in the future), Apple has released a statement in which it promises to continue to offer ever improving security solutions to its customers,

‘This case should never have been brought. We will continue to help law enforcement with their investigations, as we have done all along.  And we will continue to increase the security of our products as the threats and attacks on our data become more frequent and more sophisticated.’

Alex Abdo, an attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union, concurs that he only sees the problem resurfacing in the future, commenting that the result of the latest case,

‘appears to be just a delay of an inevitable fight.’

It is thought that the ability to crack the San Bernardino iPhone will now render a previous decision (by a court in New York) mute. That court had decided that Apple should not have to help the FBI with an ongoing investigation by helping the authorities to decrypt another iPhone. With that ability now achievable without Apple’s help, it is likely that iPhone (and any others of interest in ongoing cases) will be decrypted using the newly discovered method.


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