ACLU Upset Over Cell Phone Extraction Device

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan is concerned about a device the Michigan State Police has that extracts data from cell phones. The police acknowledge it has such a device but that they use it with either the consent of a cell phone owner or a warrant. The ACLU claims the police have not been responsive to their inquiries about the device. The device is manufactured by Cellebrite, whose website claims its mobile forensics products can retrieve even deleted and hidden data on phones as well as contact lists, text messages and photos. Michele Norris speaks with Brian Cooley, an editor-at-large at the online tech magazine CNET.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Tech privacy is a big issue in Michigan right now, where the Michigan State Police has begun using something called an extraction device. When attached to a cell phone, it can download a person's text messages, photos, video, contacts, you name it.

The MSP insists the device is only being used with a search warrant or with the permission of the phone's owner. Still, the American Civil Liberties Union is crying foul.

And for more on this, we're joined by Brian Cooley. He's an editor-at-large with the online tech magazine CNET. Brian, thanks for being with us.

Mr. BRIAN COOLEY (Editor-at-large, CNET): Thanks for having.

NORRIS: Now begin by telling us a little bit more about the device itself. It's pretty small, but it sounds like it's also pretty powerful.

Mr. COOLEY: This is a device that looks kind of like - honestly like a handheld game console from maybe 10, 15 years ago. It's about two or three times the size of a cell phone. It's got a very unusual array of buttons and a screen on it. But it's definitely a portable device.

NORRIS: Who makes it, and what does it do?

Mr. COOLEY: It's made by a company called Cellebrite, which apparently is based in Japan but has divisions all around the world, from my research. And what you do is you connect a portable device to it, typically a cell phone or a smartphone. It can connect to, I think, almost 6,000 different portable devices that we carry, and some of those are also GPS units. So it doesn't just pull data from phones, though that is the majority of what it targets.

NORRIS: In what kinds of situations would the Michigan State Police actually use an extraction device? Are we talking about routine traffic stops or more serious situations, where cracking a phone could provide key evidence?

Mr. COOLEY: Well, here's where the MSP is saying that they don't just somehow snoop your phone wirelessly while they're writing you a ticket. They physically have to cable it to this device. So it's not quite as surreptitious as sort of snooping across thin air, which as far as I know is not possible at this point. This device connects physically to your phone.

So you would have to have handed your phone to an officer, or they would've had to have taken it from you. They of course are claiming that they are doing this with full consent of the user of the device or with a court order. But in the field, of course, things can vary.

NORRIS: Other police departments using this, or is MSP being used sort of as a test case?

Mr. COOLEY: They seem to be, at the very least, the most prominent force that's using this device. I did some research on training programs that are being conducted for this Cellebrite device, and I found right off the bat eight different seminars around the country coming up in the next few months. There's one out here in the San Francisco Bay area in July, for example. They don't hold seminars that, by the way, are apparently about $1,800 to attend for nobody to come to.

And it's not a sales meeting because they would do those for free, to get you to buy the device. This is high-dollar training for apparently agencies that already own them.

NORRIS: Was this created with law enforcement in mind, or was it sort of an offshoot of some other device that was used for transactions, commercial transactions or something else?

Mr. COOLEY: This technology had its roots in the cell phone stores. When you go to trade in your cell phone, you want to get a new one, they'll often offer, and most folks absolutely love this, to transfer all of your contacts, your photos, all your information from your old phone to your new one because that's really hard to do for the average user, to bring their phone home and synch and cross-transfer data.

So this technology really exists for the cell phone industry, but you can use it any number of ways. It could be used in local law enforcement. It can be used in the various black-ops divisions of federal defense and the federal government.

Anyone who has an interest, whether it's legitimate or not, in getting data off a phone is going to be interested in this device.

NORRIS: Brian Cooley, good to talk to you. Please come back again.

Mr. COOLEY: Thanks a lot.

NORRIS: That's Brian Cooley. He's an editor-at-large at the online tech magazine CNET.

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