Israeli firm aiding FBI search of terrorist’s iPhone: report

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Cellebrite, an Israeli firm that specializes in extracting information from cellphones, is the company aiding the FBI in its attempt to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists, a newspaper in Israel reported Wednesday. | AP file photo

SAN FRANCISCO — An Israeli firm that specializes in extracting information from cellphones is the company aiding the FBI in its attempt to unlock an iPhone used by one of the San Bernardino terrorists, a newspaper in Israel reported Wednesday.

Yedioth Ahronoth reported that Cellebrite, a company known for its digital forensics, was the mysterious “outside party” that had come forward and offered to help the FBI.

Cellebrite is based in Petah Tikva, a suburb of Tel Aviv. The company also has affiliates in Parsippany, N.J. as well as in the United Kingdom, Germany, China, India and Singapore.

Cellebrite was unable to provide a comment due to this being an ongoing investigation, the company said in a statement to USA TODAY.

The FBI declined to comment on the report.

Apple and the Department of Justice are fighting over an order from a federal magistrate in California that the company must help the FBI try to get into an iPhone used by San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook by disabling a feature that would lock investigators out if they made 10 unsuccessful tries to determine the correct password.

The first hearing in the case was to have been held Tuesday, but the Justice Department requested and was granted a postponement Monday as the FBI tests a new method for unlocking the iPhone .

Justice lawyers said in court documents that an undisclosed “outside party” demonstrated a “possible method” to the FBI for unlocking Farook’s phone, recovered in the aftermath of the Dec. 2 massacre that left 14 dead.

“Testing is required to determine whether it is a viable method that will not compromise data on Farook’s iPhone,” Justice lawyers said in the three-page filing. “If the method is viable, it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple Inc.”

Federal authorities declined to identify the outside party working with the FBI or how it connected with investigators. Justice officials Monday also refused to elaborate on where the testing was taking place.

However Yedioth Ahronoth, citing “experts in the field familiar with the case,” named Cellebrite as the outside party.

The company does physical extraction and file system extraction from cell phones as well as selling kits and systems that others can use to do the data extraction.

According to its website, Cellebrite is able to get past the passcode on iPhones running a previous version of the Apple operating system, iOS 8.

“Cellebrite’s Advanced Investigative Services (CAIS) offers global law enforcement agencies a breakthrough service to unlock Apple devices running iOS 8.x. This unique capability is the first of its kind — unlock of Apple devices running iOS 8.x in a forensically sound manner and without any hardware intervention or risk of device wipe,” the website said.

The company has not publicly claimed it is able to do the same on phones running iOS 9. The phone used by Farook was running iOS 9.

John McAfee, the infamous cybersecurity pioneer who at one time was a “person of interest” in the death of an American in Belize, claimed that Cellebrite is assisting the FBI. McAfee, who has plenty of contacts in the field, declined to reveal how found out about the arrangement. He first made the claim he knew the identity of the FBI’s outside party during an appearance on CNBC on Tuesday.

In a phone interview with USA TODAY on Wednesday, McAfee says within Cellebrite’s mobile forensics division it has developed a mobile-extraction device, a “very sophisticated” product that, he says, is tantamount to spyware.

In 2013, the FBI purchased two kits for extracting data from cell phones from Cellebrite. According to the procurement documents, the Cellebrite system can “quickly extract phonebook, pictures, videos, SMS messages, call histories” and deleted histories for rapid analysis.

“I wonder about the legality of the product,” McAfee says. “Unfortunately, the FBI can buy many of them, which means no one is safe. This is a horrific solution.”

McAfee compared Cellebrite’s device to Stingray from Harris, which allows its operators to eavesdrop on the cell-phone conversations of anyone within a block.

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