The reported involvement of an Israeli cyber security firm in the iPhone unlocking battle between the FBI and Apple has put the fast-growing industry – with its military connections – into the news
The FBI have unlocked an iPhone belonging to the San Bernardino gunman
The battle between the FBI and Apple over the unlocking of San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook’s mobile phone would have piqued the interest of many in Israel’s flourishing technology industry.
Not least because at the American government’s request, a recent court hearing in the FBI’s legal fight to force Apple to unlock the iPhone was cancelled, with the FBI saying a third party had emerged with an alternative method to get into the phone. According to local media, that third party was potentially from Israel.
Citing ”actors in the sector who know the subject well” Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported that the Israeli company Cellebrite, which offers forensic mobile phone services to major law enforcement agencies abroad, helped the FBI in its efforts to crack the phone’s security. It had signed a contract with the US law enforcement agency in 2013, Yedioth reported.
Farook and his wife, Tashfeen Malik, shot dead 14 people in their attack on an office Christmas gathering in San Bernardino, California, on 2 December. They were killed in a shootout with police later the same day. Farook’s iPhone was subsequently recovered from a black Lexus that was parked outside his home in nearby Redlands.
In its legal battle with Apple, the FBI has insisted it needed to unlock the phone to determine whether the couple had contact with terrorist groups or individuals.
Cellebrite did not respond to questions, and the FBI has also not commented on the reports. But some are convinced. Achiam Alter, manager for Cyber Security at the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, told the Independent: ”I personally think that these reports are accurate.”
But whether or not they are borne out, the reports are focusing attention on Israel’s cyber security sector, which, drawing on a talented manpower pool including army cyber warfare veterans, is positioning to become a world-leading industry. Last year the sector reached a record $3.5 billion (£2.46bn) in exports according to government figures and there has been an accelerating trend in recent years of foreign firms, including British ones, purchasing Israeli companies and building hubs in Israel. Within this overall growth Cellebrite is expanding and last year added seventy workers to its team.
According to Haaretz’s economic section, the Marker, Cellebrite develops capabilities to extract from a mobile phone not only pictures, contacts and SMS histories but also information about GPS locations and even information the user erased or thought was erased. The company has technology enabling it to restore information from ”phones that have been completely destroyed, burned or thrown into water,” says Haaretz.
The military connection is vital to understanding the capability of the Israeli cyber security industry and companies like Cellebrite, although government backing and universities also play a role. Screening for the army tech units that provide young Israelis with vital cyber experience starts as young as fifteen – three years before actual enlistment. ”The difference between Israel and the US and UK is that we have mandatory military service,” says Gadi Tirosh, Managing Partner of Jerusalem Venture Partners, a venture capital firm focusing on cyber security. ”This means the military has access to the best talent. You have technical units with the best hands on experience and education, people being trained on the job.”
In its recruiting Cellebrite has put an emphasis on drawing young veterans of unit 8200, the military’s large signal intelligence unit that gathers data on Israel’s enemies – and likely its friends – and engages in Cyber warfare. Three years ago, the company named as its deputy director general Amir Lahar, a veteran of six years in 8200 who, according to the company, steered a range of projects there.
It was another 8200 veteran, Gil Shwed, CEO of the Tel Aviv based Check Point company, who developed Fire-Wall-1, one of the first protection solutions for Internet-connected computers.
Israel’s military industries draw on the battle tested nature of their equipment as a selling point abroad. Likewise, Israel’s high tech industry is now engaged in branding Israeli cyber brainpower as having the edge of being battle tested. ”Israel is at the front line of cyber warfare and when you are at the front line you get to learn quite a bit,” Mr Tirosh says. ”We’ve been attacked by all kinds of nation states, countries like Iran are actively engaged in attacking Israel through Cyber warfare and being able to detect and defend against these attacks puts you at the forefront of cyber technology.”
Jonathan Medved, CEO of the Jerusalem based OurCrowd, which backs startups in raising money from investors adds: ”The bottom line is the army is expected to do phenomenal work under huge pressure with short delivery times and it’s got to work. If it doesn’t there is a real risk. Being in that environment is very positive training for going into the commercial world where you have to work fast and get products done but the stakes are less high.”
Israel’s young army tech veterans, Mr Medved says, ”are people who come with the most relevant and best kind of training. Would you rather rely for your cyber security on someone from such a unit or someone who came out of university?”