from the brave-new-hellscape dept
To the detriment of our nation’s future, the future of our nation is increasingly being subjected to law enforcement’s presents (and presence). On the plus side, it will help students grow up with a healthy distrust of their government.
We’ve put cops in schools so kids can be subjected to the same brutality adults receive. Disciplinary problems long-handled by schools and parents are now handled with handcuffs and criminal charges. The same questionable science that leads cops to believe future criminal acts can be predicted by algorithms and checklists is being wielded against children, turning their bad grades and spotty attendance records into criminal predicates.
Now, there’s this: the use of high-tech hacking tools to forensically scrape kids’ phones for evidence of alleged criminal acts.
In May 2016, a student enrolled in a high-school in Shelbyville, Texas, consented to having his phone searched by one of the district’s school resource officers. Looking for evidence of a romantic relationship between the student and a teacher, the officer plugged the phone into a Cellebrite UFED to recover deleted messages from the phone. According to the arrest affidavit, investigators discovered the student and teacher frequently messaged each other, “I love you.” Two days later, the teacher was booked into the county jail for sexual assault of a child.
While this may have resulted in something that actually prevented further harm to a student, the fact that schools possess tools capable of bypassing device encryption is… well, horrifying. We’re talking about minors here, not dangerous criminals. This case is not a great argument for the acquisition and use of phone-cracking tools by educators. There were many ways to approach this problem, but this one was the easiest. And it shows those selling phone-cracking tech don’t really care who buys it or what they use it for.
Cracking a phone to scrape it for evidence gives investigators easy access to communications and other private info even a consenting minor wouldn’t agree to share with others. But the tools can’t make that distinction. And investigators assume consent for a search means looking at everything the tools give them access to.
The Cellebrite used in this case was owned by the local sheriff’s office. That it decided it was appropriate to use on a minor’s phone is disturbing, to say the least. It seems the same thing could have been accomplished by the minor providing them with access to the messages, which could have been documented and downloaded without engaging in a forensic search of the phone.
This isn’t some sort of anomaly. As Gizmodo reports, multiple school districts are buying phone-cracking tech to access the content of students’ devices.
In March 2020, the North East Independent School District, a largely Hispanic district north of San Antonio, wrote a check to Cellebrite for $6,695 for “General Supplies.” In May, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD near Houston, Texas, paid Oxygen Forensics Inc., another mobile device forensics firm, $2,899. Not far away, majority-white Conroe ISD wrote a check to Susteen Inc., the manufacturer of the similar Secure View system, for $995 in September 2016.
According to Gizmodo, only eight districts in the US acknowledge publicly (via their websites) that they own device-cracking tech. The actual number is definitely much higher. This total doesn’t include law enforcement agencies that own or have access to the tech, and whose “school resource officers” might decide is necessary to investigate students or their accusations against school employees.
Deploying this tech to search students’ phones isn’t just irresponsible, it’s dangerous. Cops and prosecutors have rarely been reluctant to turn consensual sharing of intimate images into the “production” of “child pornography.” Dig deep enough into someone’s phone and you’ll find something incriminating. And that’s if the cops are simply looking for evidence. Some cops like to look at stuff just because they have the access and the power to demand compliance. Access to this tech guarantees abuse. But in these cases, the victim will be a minor — people who are assumed to be more vulnerable and whose lives can be ruined before they can even be started.