Israeli firm that hacked the iPhone wants to analyze cell phones after crashes

April 13, 2016

The name Cellebrite might not ring any bells, but you've probably heard about the company. It's the Israeli firm that's rumored to have helped the FBI hack into the iPhone 5c involved in the shootings that took place last December in San Bernadino, California.

Whether or not those rumors are true, it's clear that Cellebrite does have another project in the works--one that could help law enforcement examine the activity on mobile phones involved in traffic accidents.

The as-yet-unnamed product has commonly been dubbed a "textalyzer" because, like a breathalyzer, it can be used to determine fault in collisions. Specifically, the textalyzer would allow police officers to hack the phones of motorists suspected of distracted driving.

In a nod to privacy laws, the content of any text messages, emails, or other communications that drivers might've sent before an accident wouldn't be revealed. However, the app or device would show officers whether the phone was in use before the accident occurred. If it was, the texalyzer might be able to conduct further analysis to confirm whether the phone was being used legally--for example, hands-free--or not.

Can it? Will it?

As to whether a product like the textalyzer can exist, the answer is a resounding "you betcha". Cellebrite already offers a product that can pull much more data from mobile devices; the textalyzer would be like a lighter version of that product, presumably to limit misuse.

As for whether a product like the textalyzer will ever become commonplace, or even required by law, the answer is "definitely maybe". A bill proposed in New York by state senator Terrence Murphy reads, in part (sorry for the shouty all-caps):

"EVERY PERSON OPERATING A MOTOR VEHICLE WHICH HAS BEEN INVOLVED IN AN ACCIDENT OR COLLISION INVOLVING DAMAGE TO REAL OR PERSONAL PROPERTY, PERSONAL INJURY OR DEATH, AND WHO HAS IN HIS POSSESSION AT OR NEAR THE TIME OF SUCH ACCIDENT OR COLLISION, A MOBILE TELEPHONE OR PERSONAL ELECTRONIC DEVICE, SHALL AT THE REQUEST OF A POLICE OFFICER, SURRENDER HIS OR HER MOBILE TELEPHONE AND/OR PORTABLE ELECTRONIC DEVICE TO THE POLICE OFFICER SOLELY FOR THE PURPOSE OF FIELD TESTING SUCH MOBILE TELEPHONE AND/OR PORTABLE ELECTRONIC DEVICE. IF SUCH FIELD TESTING DETERMINES THAT THE OPERATOR OF THE MOTOR VEHICLE WAS USING HIS OR HER MOBILE TELEPHONE OR PORTABLE ELECTRONIC DEVICE IN VIOLATION OF SECTION TWELVE HUNDRED TWENTY-FIVE-C OR TWELVE HUNDRED TWENTY-FIVE-D OF THIS ARTICLE, THE RESULTS OF SUCH TESTING SHALL CONSTITUTE EVIDENCE OF ANY SUCH VIOLATION."

Sounds like a job tailor-made for the textalyzer, no?

Murphy's bill is currently being heard in the Senate Finance committee. That committee's response could signal its chances on the floor of the full Senate and in the Assembly.

And that, in turn, could suggest whether laws like this will roll out to other states. In our experience, chances are pretty good that they would, but not to all states, not immediately, and not without significant tweaks from legislature to legislature. Stay tuned.

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