Signal and Cellebrite: Raising Difficult Questions

April 22, 2021

Signal published an summary of its exploration of the Cellebrite software. Founded in Israel and now owned by the Japanese company Sun Corporation, Cellebrite is a frequent exhibitor, speaker, and training sponsor at law enforcement and intelligence conferences. There are units and subsidiaries of the company, which are not germane to this short blog post. The company’s main business is to provide specialized services to make sense of data on mobile devices. Yes, there are other use cases for the company’s technology, but phones are a magnet at the present time.

Exploiting Vulnerabilities in Cellebrite UFED and Physical Analyzer from an App’s Perspective” makes clear that Cellebrite’s software is probably neither better nor worse than the SolarWinds, Microsoft Exchange Server, or other vendors’ software. Software has bugs, and once those bugs are discovered and put into circulation via a friendly post on a Dark Web pastesite or a comment in a tweet, it’s party time for some people.

Signal’s trope is that the Cellebrite “package” fell off a truck. I am not sure how many of those in my National Cyber Crime 2021 lectures will find that explanation credible, but some people are skeptics. Signal says:

[Cellebrite’s] products have often been linked to the persecution of imprisoned journalists and activists around the world, but less has been written about what their software actually does or how it works. Let’s take a closer look. In particular, their software is often associated with bypassing security, so let’s take some time to examine the security of their own software.

The write up then points out vulnerabilities. The information may be very useful to bad actors who want to configure their mobile devices to defeat the Cellebrite system and method. As readers of this blog may recall, I am not a big fan of disclosures about specialized software for certain government entities. Others — like the Signal analysts — have a different view point. I am not going to get involved in a discussion of this issue.

What I want to point out is that the Signal write up, if accurate, is another example of a specialized services vendor doing the MBA thing of over promising, overselling, and over marketing a cyber security solution.

In the context of the cyber security threat intelligence services which failed to notice the not-so-trivial SolarWinds, Microsoft Exchange Server, and Pulse Secure cyber missteps — the Signal essay is important.

Let me express my concern in questions:

What if the cyber security products and services are not able to provide security? What if the indexes of the Dark Web are not up to date and complete so queries return misleading results? What if the auto-generate alerts are based on flawed  methods?

The cyber vendors and their customers are likely to respond, “Our products are more than 95 percent effective.” That may be accurate in some controlled situations. But at the present time, the breaches and the Signal analysis may form the outlines of a cyber environment in which expensive cyber tools are little more than plastic hammers and saws. Expensive plastic tools which break when subjective to real world work.

Stephen E Arnold, April 22, 2021


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