An Israeli company is helping the FBI unlock Apple’s encryption, according to report published Wednesday in an Israeli newspaper, a claim leading encryption advocates to criticize the Justice Department. The FBI and Apple were gearing up for a legal battle this week over whether the tech giant must help the government unlock an iPhone used by Syed Rizwan Farook, one of the alleged attackers in the deadly San Bernadino terror attack last December.
Apple decried the request as possibly setting a dangerous precedent. As Apple won public support, the Justice Department filed a motion Monday to delay the trial claiming that an “outside party” had helped US law enforcement in unlocking the iPhone in question and that Apple’s assistance was no longer needed.
This unnamed party is Cellebrite, an Israel-based mobile forensics firm, according to sources speaking to Israeli daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth in a story published Wednesday.
The report notes that Cellebrite has had a contract with the FBI since at least 2013. Cellebrite focuses on extracting and analyzing data from mobile devices like smartphones.
The company has experience studying more than 19,000 device profiles, according to Cellebrite’s website. The firm also claims that more than 15,000 of its users come from law enforcement and military agencies around the globe. Cellebrite, the FBI or Apple did not respond to a request for comment on the new report.
Encryption advocates, however, claim that American law enforcement agencies have been lying about their inability to unlock the iPhone.
Instead, activists accuse the FBI of using the shooting as a way to nab a precedent to require Apple’s compliance in decrypting devices in the future for a wide variety of cases.
Surveillance blogger Marcy Wheeler noted in a post Wednesday that the U.S. government was already partnering with Cellebrite in order to unlock an iPhone 6 involved in a drug case completely unrelated to the San Bernadino shooting.
A search warrant mentioned Cellebrite’s iPhone decryption powers on Feb. 16, causing Wheeler to question the FBI’s narrative of suddenly receiving the new decryption help from an outside party.
“The FBI’s last minute excuse is about as believable as an undergrad who comes down with the flu the night before their paper is due,” according to a statement released Wednesday by Evan Greer, campaign director of encryption advocate group Fight for the Future. “They should come clean immediately, and admit that they mislead the court and the public, to avoid further damaging what’s left of their credibility.”