Signal’s Cellebrite Hack Is Already Causing Grief for the Law


Illustration for article titled Signal's Cellebrite Hack Is Already Causing Grief for the Law

Screenshot: Lucas Ropek/Signal

A Maryland defense attorney has decided to challenge the conviction of one of his clients after it was recently discovered that the phone cracking product used in the case, produced by digital forensics firm Cellebrite, has severe cybersecurity flaws that could make it vulnerable to hacking.

Ramon Rozas, who has practiced law for 25 years, told Gizmodo that he was compelled to pursue a new trial after reading a widely shared blog post written by the CEO of the encryption chat app Signal, Moxie Marlinspike. It was just about a week ago that Marlinspike brutally dunked on Cellebritewriting, in a searing takedown, that the companys products lacked basic industry-standard exploit mitigation defenses, and that security holes in its software could easily be exploited to manipulate data during cell phone extraction.

Given the fact that Cellebrites extraction software is used by law enforcement agencies the world over, questions have naturally emerged about the integrity of investigations that used the tech to secure convictions.

For Rozas, the concerns center around the fact that Cellebrite evidence was heavily relied upon to convict his client, who was charged in relation to an armed robbery. The prosecutions argument essentially turned on that data, which was extracted from the suspects phone using the companys tools. In a motion recently filed, Rozas argued that because severe defects have since been uncovered about the technology, a new trial should be ordered so that the defense can examine the report produced by the Cellebrite device in light of this new evidence, and examine the Cellebrite device itself.

Illustration for article titled Signal's Cellebrite Hack Is Already Causing Grief for the Law

Screenshot: Lucas Ropek

Cellebrite has been around for a while but I feel like prosecutors and police officers have become much more comfortable with it, Rozas told Gizmodo over the phone. Previously, data extraction was primarily used in only certain types of casestypically child pornography or, sometimes, drug offenses. Now, however, cops first move is typically to find some sort of incriminating evidence on a suspects cell phone, he said, regardless of what kind of case it is.

The widespread use of such tools is potentially concerning, given one of the more outlandish claims made in Marlinspikes blog: that corrupted apps on a targeted phone could basically overwrite any data extracted by Cellebrites toolsessentially making it possible for an outside party to manipulate data on confiscated devices.

Despite how large these security issues seem to be, legal experts arent necessarily sold on the idea that they will change anything. Megan Graham, who is a Clinical Supervising Attorney at the Samuelson Law, Technology & Public Policy Clinic with Berkeley Law School, said that it wasnt totally clear how the revelations about Cellebrites technology could affect court cases. In all likelihood, they probably wont do a whole lot for older cases, though there may be some discussion moving forward about how better to address potential issues with police technology, she said.

I think its going to take a while to figure out what the exact legal ramifications of this are, said Graham in a phone call. I dont know how likely it is that cases would be thrown out, she said, adding that a person who has already been convicted would likely have to show that someone else identified this vulnerability and exploited it at the timenot an especially easy task.

Going forward, I think its just hard to tell, Graham said. We now know that this vulnerability exists, and it creates concerns about the security of Cellebrite devices and the integrity of evidence. But theres a lot that we dont knowand that could potentially be difficult to cess out, she emphasized. Among Grahams concerns, she said that we dont know if the vulnerability is being exploited, and that makes it difficult to discern when it could become an issue in past cases.

Ultimately, Graham said she was hopeful that in the future courts may try to be more thoughtful and nuanced about how they approach digital evidencesomething this whole incident could help catalyze.

Cellebrite allegedly pushed out new updates to its products on Monday, Vice News reports. The company claimed that the patches had been released to address a recently identified security vulnerability. The security patch strengthens the protections of the solutions. However, Vice also reports that the company did not specifically say whether the addressed vulnerability is one and the same as the one disclosed by Marlinspike.



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