We may never know if, as some reports (such as this one) claim, an Israeli mobile tech firm is helping the FBI unlock the iPhones of the San Bernardino shooters – but if any firm is capable of getting past the six-digit code in the ten or so tries the device allows before permanently locking up, it’s Petah Tikvah-based Cellebrite.
In fact, the company is very straightforward about its iPhone-unlocking capabilities.
“Cellebrite’s Advanced Investigative Services (CAIS) offers global law enforcement agencies a breakthrough service to unlock Apple devices running iOS 8.x,” according to the company. “This unique capability is the first of its kind – unlocking Apple devices running iOS 8.x in a forensically sound manner and without any hardware intervention or risk of device wipe.”
The FBI, of course, won’t say if it has hired Cellebrite to use this and other forensic technologies the company has developed to deal with rogue iPhones, and Cellebrite couldn’t say even if it wanted to. But it’s possible that the two entities are working with each other – or maybe will be, once the FBI gets a look at the Cellebrite website where the claim is made.
For over a month, the FBI has been after Apple to help its technicians unlock the iPhone used by by Syed Rizwan Farouk, the terrorist who shot up a medical center in San Bernadino, California, on December 2, 2015. As part of its investigation, the FBI seized Farouk’s cellphone, but with Farouk and his wife Tashfeen Malik dead, investigators found they were unable to unlock the device.
The fact that it’s an iPhone means that if they attempt a “brute force” method to discover the password, trying all the possible combinations, the phone will freeze up and be rendered useless. The only way to restore it would be to connect it to the computer that was used to back it up, which the investigators apparently do not have access to.
The manufacturer of the device – Apple – could probably help, but the company has refused, claiming that doing so would risk the trust of its customers. The FBI refused to accept that as an answer and even went to court to get an order forcing the company to unlock the device. But earlier this week, the FBI backed off, with Justice Department lawyers requesting a delay before a crucial hearing.
Legal experts speculated that the FBI may have found a way to breach the phone’s security without Apple’s help – and then the reports, both Israel and outside it, about Cellebrite began appearing.
Established in 1999, Cellebrite was acquired in 2007 by FutureDial Incorporated and one of its major shareholders, Japan’s Sun Corporation, but the company’s R&D is still based in Petah Tikvah. Among other innovations, Cellebrite distributes a system to storeowners that allows them to unlock phones that customers bring in for repair, but who forget to supply their passwords.
More relevant to the FBI are the services offered by the company’s Mobile Forensics division. The company works with government and private digital forensic investigators in more than 60 countries, helping to analyze data on cellphones and in the cloud.
And, most importantly, unlocking iPhones.
“One of the greatest challenges faced in the forensic industry today is the need to quickly access mobile device evidence from locked Apple devices running iOS 8,” according to Cellebrite. “Even with the most sophisticated mobile forensics tools and technology available, additional expertise and skills are required to unlock these devices. Cellebrite has a unique unlock capability for devices running iOS 8.x that will provide you with unprecedented access to evidence you can stand behind.”
The FBI may well be convinced of this.