Cellebrite pitches governments iPhone spy tools for coronavirus contact tracing

Makers of smartphone hacking tools are pitching, and in some cases already working with, governments on iPhone spy tools for COVID-19 coronavirus contact tracing.

When law enforcement agencies want to gather evidence locked inside an iPhone, they often turn to hacking software from the Israeli firm Cellebrite. By manually plugging the software into a suspect’s phone, police can break in and determine where the person has gone and whom the user has met. Now, as governments fight the spread of COVID-19, Cellebrite is pitching the same capability to help authorities learn who a coronavirus sufferer may have infected.

Joel Schectman, Christopher Bing, and Jack Stubbs for Reuters:

Cellebrite pitches governments on iPhone spy tools for coronavirus contact tracingWhen someone tests positive, authorities can siphon up the patient’s location data and contacts, making it easy to “quarantine the right people,” according to a Cellebrite email pitch to the Delhi police force this month.

This would usually be done with consent, the email said. But in legally justified cases, such as when a patient violates a law against public gatherings, police could use the tools to break into a confiscated device, Cellebrite advised. “We do not need the phone passcode to collect the data,” the salesman wrote to a senior officer in an April 22 email reviewed by Reuters… Cellebrite’s marketing overtures are part of a wave of efforts by at least eight surveillance and cyber-intelligence companies attempting to sell repurposed spy and law enforcement tools to track the virus and enforce quarantines, according to interviews with executives and non-public company promotional materials reviewed by Reuters.

The executives declined to specify which countries have purchased their surveillance products, citing confidentiality agreements with governments. But executives at four of the companies said they are piloting or in the process of installing products to counter coronavirus in more than a dozen countries in Latin America, Europe and Asia…

Privacy issues loom. Civil liberties advocates fear that virus tracking efforts could open the door to the kind of ubiquitous government surveillance efforts they have fought for decades… Suzanne Spaulding, a former U.S. intelligence community lawyer and senior Homeland Security official, described this potential COVID-19 tracking approach as “among the most privacy-invasive.” That’s because it “envisions all of the data about everyone’s movements, not just infected individuals and their known contacts, going to the government.”

MacDailyNews Take: Oh, this sounds just fine. (smirk) No wonder they want to rebrand coronavirus contact tracing as “exposure notification.” The only thing Orwell got wrong was the year.


  1. Contact tracing has been an indispensable tool for controlling infectious disease since the late 1800s. It was central to the control of typhoid, TB, STDs, HIV, smallpox, measles, and you-name-it. Conducted properly, it is not invasive. Please do not suggest throwing the baby out with the bath water just because it can be used as an excuse for privacy violations. People can enjoy neither freedom nor security if they are dead.

    1. Digital contact tracing will not work. Even Apple admits it right upfront.

      Digital contact tracing is, as MDN says, “pablum for the masses… pie-in-the-sky piffle… these apps are little more than security blankets for the citizenry to clutch on their way to herd immunity and, for governments that use a centralized system, to track the spread of infections on the way to herd immunity.”

      1. If a country were to rely exclusively on digital contact tracing, that assuredly would not work. That is why no country is proposing to do that. The apps are simply an adjunct to the traditional methods that have been used for well over a century. They need help because they are short-handed. The states have 36,000 tracers, but they need about 100,000.

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