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Even Apple uses tech from the company allegedly helping the FBI crack an iPhone

Published Mar 25th, 2016 9:45PM EDT
Apple iPhone Encryption Hacking

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There’s an entire industry devoted to cracking the iPhone and other smartphones. These companies operate mostly in the dark, offering their services to clients when other methods of retrieving data from a gadget fail. Cellebrite is one of the companies with experience in cracking devices including the iPhone, and the security firm os believed to have inked a deal with the FBI to crack the San Bernardino iPhone 5c.

If true, it would be a bit ironic because Cellebrite also counts Apple among its customers.

DON’T MISS: 4 reasons why the FBI unlocking the San Bernardino iPhone without Apple is bad news

Looking at the “shadowy global industry” that’s always working to extract information from smartphones, Associated Press mentions that Cellebrite is currently believed to be the unnamed third party helping the FBI pull data from an iPhone that had previously belonged to one of two San Bernardino shooters. The company makes devices that allow law enforcement agencies to extract and decode data from more than 15,000 kinds of smartphones and other mobile devices, including contacts, pictures and text messages.

Cellebrite has contracts with the FBI dating back to 2014, Associated Press says, but also commercial products that can be used to transfer data from older phones to new ones. Apple uses Cellebrite devices in some of its stores, the report says.

But Cellebrite is only one of the many players who are looking to make a name for themselves in this market. The companies operate mostly in the shadows, as they don’t need the spotlight. Finding exploits and keeping them secret are key for a security company looking to make money in this market.

The Associated Press spoke to other firms in the same line of work that aren’t connected with the FBI’s investigation. One of them, Rook Security, tried to create a copy of the iPhone’s flash memory, hoping to then crack the device’s lock screen protection. That’s a method some experts think the FBI is using in this case, though FBI Director James Comey said on Thursday it’s not going to employ it, as it might compromise the integrity of the handset.

Rook Security suspended its efforts when it couldn’t find a way to take the iPhone apart without damaging the memory chip.

While Apple manages to stay ahead of many forensics companies, these entities have their own research staff looking for holes in new devices. If all else fails, the companies often resort to hiring freelance hackers who work for the highest bidder.

For example, Cellebrite says its commercial software works on iPhones running older operating systems including iOS 8, but not the iOS 9 that’s running on the San Bernardino iPhone. But the company might also have secret tools that could be used to crack Apple’s latest operating system.

In a report about the FBI’s recent revelations on decrypting the iPhone, The Washington Post noted that the mobile forensics is now a booming business, with the global digital forensics market worth $2 billion in 2014. That figure is estimated to climb to almost $5 billion by 2021, according to a mid-February study from Transparency Market Research.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.