Small Japanese Firm Helping the FBI Crack iPhones Profiled

The iPhone 5c that was the topic of a legal dispute between Apple and the US government has been cracked by Israel-based mobile forensic company Cellebrite Mobile Syncronization Ltd, a subsidiary of Japanese Sun Corp, Bloomberg’s sources confirm.

In an unexpected turn of events, the FBI has dropped its case against Apple over the iPhone’s encryption, because Cellebrite was able to access the data held on the handset without assistance from the iPhone maker. How did Cellebrite end up as a forensic company? As it turns out, it was almost by accident.

“Although the FBI didn’t get a legal decision that would require Apple to hack around its own security software, it created a situation where they can go to third parties to do that,” said Matt Larson, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence. “Companies like Cellebrite may have found a niche industry of assisting the FBI unlock personal devices in select cases moving forward.”

IPhone 5c yellow

Sun acquired Petah Tikva, Israel-based Cellebrite in 2007 for roughly $17.5 million. At the time, Cellebrite had little connection with forensics, and the acquisition was mainly to add phone-to-phone data transfer to Sun’s telecommunications business, according a Sun spokesman. Nowadays, the bulk of Sun’s mobile data solution business comes from Cellebrite, the spokesman added.

Cellebrite sells both hardware and software for extracting data from smartphones. These tools can help even if the data is encrypted or has been deleted. The firm now employs 500 people and has offices in various countries.
What makes Cellebrite-like companies valuable isn’t just their ability to access data on encrypted phones:

“As you copy the evidence from the phone, you need to be able to catalog it and demonstrate you haven’t tampered with it — show that the file that came from the phone is the same file you are using in court,” Jonathan Zdziarski, a cyber-security researcher and iPhone security expert said. “There have been plenty of free hacking tools available — it’s not just about getting to the data. All of these problems are addressed by forensics companies like Cellebrite.”

Now that they have the much-desired backdoor to Apple’s iOS, it looks as though the FBI is also testing whether it works on other devices.