The Electronic Privacy Information Center has filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit against the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement regarding the agency’s use of forensic technology designed to hack cellphones. EPIC is attempting to clarify how ICE uses the devices to conduct warrantless electronic searches of cellphones and laptops along the U.S. border.

The digital rights group accuses ICE of failing to respond to previously filed records requests in a timely manner. EPIC is seeking all recent ICE contracts related to purchase of mobile forensics devices and technology; guidance, training materials, manuals, or other policies and procedures on ICE; and any information related to the use of mobile data forensics technology at the border.

“Over the last several years, ICE has tested various mobile forensic technologies.
Additionally, ICE has signed contracts with Cellebrite, a provider of mobile forensic technology,” EPIC writes in the complaint. Using one of Cellebrite’s devices ICE is able to electronically search travelers devices and access text messages, private emails, contact lists, and photos as well as other personal information. The company sells the Universal Forensic Extraction Devices (UFED) that unlock, decrypt, and extract phone data, including “real-time mobile data . . . call logs, contacts, calendar, SMS, MMS, media files, apps data, chats, passwords.”
Cellebrite is well known for maintaining close relationships with U.S. government agencies and police. The Israeli-based cybersecurity firm is the producer of the UFED Touch, the forensic extraction device which the FBI used to hack into the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone in 2016. A partial list of Cellebrite’s known customers includes:
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
  • Commodity Futures Trading Commission
  • DEA, Department of Energy
  • Department of State
  • Defense Threat Reduction Agency
  • DISA
  • DoD
  • DOE
  • DOJ
  • EPA
  • FBI
  • FDA
  • Federal Law Enforcement Training Center
  • Federal Prison System
  • Forest Service
  • FTC
  • IRS
  • NASA
  • NIST
  • Office of Inspector General
  • Patent and Trademark Office
  • Securities and Exchange Commision
  • U.S. Air Force
  • U.S. Army
  • U.S. Coast Guard
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection
  • U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services
  • U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement
  • USDA
  • U.S. Marshals Service
  • U.S. Navy
  • U.S. Secret Service
  • VA
  • Washington Headquarters Services

In addition, in December 2016, it was revealed that more than 20 state police departments have also signed contracts with Cellebrite. Motherboard reported:

Cellebrite has sold its wares to regional agencies in 20 states, and likely many more, according to the cache of documents acquired by Motherboard. Those items specifically include Cellebrite’s range of Universal Forensic Extraction Devices (UFED); the typically laptop-sized or handheld devices for hoovering up data from phones. Some of the agencies note in the documents that they use the technology for legal searches of devices.

One month later it was reported that a hacker had stolen 900 GB of data from Cellebrite, including customer information, databases, and technical data related to Cellebrite’s products.

EPIC is not the only organization suing ICE for failing to disclose details on practices which likely violate the civil liberties of travelers. In December 2017, two organizations filed suit against ICE for failing to release records related to the agency’s use of devices to gather biometric data from immigrants. Mijente, an advocacy group focused on “promoting Latinx and Chicanx organizing and movement building,” and the National Immigration Project of National Lawyers Guild asked a federal court to force ICE and the Department of Homeland Security to release information related to the use of handheld devices used to gather biometric data from immigrants during raids.

The organizations state that ICE is responsible for promoting technologies with little oversight which endanger civil liberties. “The coinciding surge in immigration raids under the Trump Administration raises further alarm over whether such mobile biometric devices have adequate oversight and accountability,” the press release states. “As ICE increasingly promotes the use of such technologies, the public deserves to know the impact of their use on communities, including within immigrant communities and communities of color.”

The use of these devices is not surprising; since the beginning of the Trump administration, warrantless searches have increased as the border becomes an increasingly militarized surveillance checkpoint. In a statement to Congress last year, EPIC warned that enhanced surveillance at the border would negatively impact the rights of Americans. Based on the reported attempts at secrecy displayed by ICE and other agencies, it’s unknown how long the American public may have to keep waiting to find out what the federal government has been implementing.

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