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iPhone hacking firm updates tool amid Apple-FBI spat

Cellebrite's update enables investigators to extract data on iPhones linked to crime

Los Angeles

DIGITAL forensics firm Cellebrite has released a new tool that could be used to access data on the iPhones at the heart of the latest spat between Apple and the US' Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

The company pushed out an update to its UFED Physical Analyzer software, which helps law enforcement agencies and other customers extract and analyse information on some iPhones.

Shahar Tal, a security research vice-president at Cellebrite, wrote in an e-mail to customers on Tuesday: "For the first time, a wealth of previously untapped data sets from iOS devices can be leveraged to change the course of investigations. This update allows you to quickly perform a forensically sound temporary jailbreak and full file system extraction within one streamlined workflow."

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The tool uses an exploit called Checkm8 that enables access to chips running on iPhones released between 2011 and 2017. Cellebrite, owned by Japan's Suncorporation, said its latest version of the tool works with the iPhone 5S, first sold in 2013, through the iPhone X, sold in 2017.

This could help investigators analyse at least one of the iPhones that belonged to Mohammed Saeed Alshamrani, the perpetrator of a Dec 6 terrorist attack on a US Navy base in Florida. He died and his iPhone 5 and iPhone 7 were locked, leaving the FBI looking for ways to hack into the devices.

The FBI has been pressing Apple to help it break into the iPhones; President Donald Trump has also called on the company to step up.

However, experts in cyber security and digital forensics said on Tuesday that the government can hack into the devices without the technology giant.

Tools from Cellebrite and other digital forensics firms that incorporate the Checkm8 vulnerability may be especially helpful to the FBI.

Neil Broom, who works with law enforcement agencies to unlock devices, said: "This Cellebrite tool would let the government get a whole lot of information out of the phone, more than we've previously been able to extract."

The Cellebrite tool costs about US$15,000, plus an annual maintenance fee of more than US$4,000, he said.

Before it can be used, a customer would need another Cellebrite tool for actually unlocking the phone, which could cost between US$100,000 and US$150,000, he added. BLOOMBERG