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Civil liberties advocates leery of cellphone extraction devices

By Nkoyo Iyamba | Posted - Apr. 22, 2011 at 10:02 p.m.


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SALT LAKE CITY — Michigan state police are under fire for using a device that collects information from the cellphones of people they're investigating. The American Civil Liberties Union says law enforcement could be violating people's Fourth Amendment rights by using these devices.

It's the same technology investigators here in Utah used to pull video and other data implicating Nathan and Stephanie Sloop in the Ethan Tracy murder case.

The Cellebrite device is a small-sized box that barely fits inside the palm of an adult male. Digital forensic investigators at H-11 Digital Forensic Solutions said the gadget can pull text messages, video, passwords, and other data from cellphones.

"We can do a physical dump of a particular device,'" said John Zeke Thackray, the Salt Lake company's director of forensic services. "That gets me truly deleted data, which has been long gone off this phone. Unless it's been overwritten, we can get truly deleted data back."

Thackray travels the world training law enforcement how to use cellphone extraction devices like Cellebrite.


Law enforcement needs tools, but by the same token, private citizens need protection against government overreaching.

–Civil rights attorney Brian Barnard


"These tools are a great asset to law enforcement around the world, and they allow us to do our job efficiently, swiftly, and keep the public safe," he said.

But considering what's happening in Michigan, civil rights attorneys are leery of these cellphone extraction devices.

"For law enforcement to say to a person, 'Let me have your cellphone,' and not explain to the person, 'I'm going to access or download personal information from your cellphone,' is frightening," said civil rights attorney Brian Barnard.

He said it's frightening because the device can be easily abused.

"Law enforcement needs tools," Barnard said. "But by the same token, private citizens need protection against government overreaching."

Barnard explained when police use the device without a person's consent, it's unconstitutional.

In a three-page letter sent last week to the Michigan State Police, the ACLU said it's concerned that Fourth Amendment protections could be undermined if people give state police permission to hook the data extraction devices to their cellphones without realizing the devices can retrieve even hidden or deleted data such as contact lists, text messages and photos.

Cellebrite UFED system
UFED Standard Kit
The Cellebrite UFED Forensic System is a standalone mobile forensic device. It extracts vital information from 95 percent of all cell phones. The UFED allows you to extract a wide variety of data types, including:
  • Contacts
  • SMS text messages
  • Deleted text messages
  • Call history
  • Audio
  • Video
  • Pictures and images
  • Ringtones
  • Phone details

"A device that allows immediate, surreptitious intrusion into private data creates enormous risks that troopers will ignore these requirements (for a warrant) to the detriment of the constitutional rights of persons whose cellphones are searched," the ACLU says in the letter.

The organization also said it's concerned that minorities may be more likely to have their cellphones searched by the state police.

State police said in a statement released Wednesday that the data extraction devices are used only if a search warrant is obtained or a person gives consent to have the phone scanned. They say the devices aren't being used to extract personal information during routine traffic stops.

"The implication by the ACLU that the MSP uses these devices to 'quietly bypass Fourth Amendment protections against unreasonable searches' is untrue, and this divisive tactic unjustly harms police and community relations," the state police statement said. It added that the devices are to be "used only by MSP specialty teams on criminal cases, such as cases against children."

Thackray said there's probably more to the story involving Michigan state police than what's being reported in the press. However, he has no sympathy for criminals.

"It's a common technique to gather intelligence to who's using what phone, particularly with prepaid phones," he said. "And trying to identify a person to a phone and who was using it at that time, that is great valuable information, particularly with drug dealers because they swap phones about."

Thackray, who has recently been training Mexican police on how to use cellphone extraction technology to fight illegal drug cartels, said that despite gadgets used to pull data from cellphones, criminals are staying one step ahead of the technology.

"The hardened criminals, that is their anti-surveillance," Thackray said. "They will use devices that are not supported by any of these phones."

For example, the Cellebrite supports over 3,000 phone models, but there are thousands of other phones out there, Thackray said.

"So they'll go on the web, Google the phone. Google what forensics capabilities there are," he said. "And then buy a product that circumnavigates that and then probably change it every three or four weeks."

Thackray said investigators use several types of extraction devices, sometimes combining them, to gather information more effectively.

Email: niyamba@ksl.com

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