Meet the phone cracker Navid Sobbi explains what a treasure trove of information your phone can be and how to protect your information.

If you thought wiping your mobile phone once to delete its contents, or having a passcode to protect it from prying eyes was enough, think again.

Meet the ultimate mobile phone data extractor, a $40,000 Israeli-made machine manufactured by Cellebrite and used by private investigator Navid Sobbi’s business National Surveillance and Intelligence and numerous law-enforcement agencies around the word.

The machine can crack passwords and extract varying degrees of data from almost every smartphone on the market bar a number of Blackberry models and the iPhone 5 and above. Photos, texts, locations and more can be extracted from the phone’s memory even if previously wiped.

The Cellebrite system phone access image

Navid connects an iPhone up to a laptop to begin examination of the data recovered. Photo: Tessa Stevens

In total, the device claims to be able to extract varying degrees of data from about 8000 phone models. Newer iPhones are not susceptible to the password cracking because Apple’s encryption methods have improved over time, but most phones are still able to have their data extracted if the password is provided, Mr Sobbi said.

“If it’s a smartphone such as Android or Apple we can get absolutely everything,” he said.

“So that’s locations, SMS, MMS, passwords, notes, emails and call logs.”

The Cellebrite system phone access image www.intelagencies (1)

The Cellebrite system has a cable for every phone on the market. Photo: Tessa Stevens

Often data from mobile phones is used to corroborate or disprove theories in criminal trials.

In one recent case, US forensic investigators looked at data stored on murder suspect Pedro Bravo’s smartphone to infer he used the phone’s flashlight when he buried the body of a former friend in a remote wooded area. Bravo was later found guilty of the murder.

Mr Sobbi said most phones were “easy” to get into.

The Cellebrite system phone access image www.intelagencies (2)

The Cellebrite system can extract data from a variety of phones. Photo: Tessa Stevens

He said the could bypass an iPhone 4 passcode and get into the phone “within about five minutes”.

Some Android phones, such as the HTC One, were also easy to crack but piecing the data together was a time consuming task. Blackberrys for example were “extremely hard to get into”, he said.

Blackberry is well known for its secure phones, being the preferred brand of governments for their leaders and diplomats. Sydney bikies have also reportedly used them to thwart police efforts to intercept their communications.

Based in Sydney, Mr Sobbi has worked with NSW Police on criminal matters and also in tendering evidence for family court cases. He has also assisted with corporate leak investigations, where employees have taken a company’s intellectual property to a competitor.

Those that have accidentally deleted data – like family photos – also go to him for help and in about 90 to 95 per cent of cases he has been able to successfully retrieve the data.

“But it all comes down to how the phone is used,” he said. “So if, for example, the phone has been factory-reset a number of times or damaged, then our success rate is a lot less.”

After using the Cellebrite tool for several years, Mr Sobbi said it was most surprising it could get location data even when a phone’s GPS was turned off.

“We’ve noticed that [some phones] still store probably every 15 minutes or once every hour … a location of where the device is,” Mr Sobbi said.

“Even if [location is] off in the GPS option, it might store it from the cell tower option.”

He advised people to wipe their phones several times before selling or disposing of them.

“When a consumer wants to change their phone or just wants to give their phone to someone else, the best thing to do is at least restore it back to factory settings a minimum of about five times.

“The more you do that the harder it becomes for the forensic examiner to recover the data.”

He said he could also extract data from tablets and computer hard drives.

Although many law-enforcement agencies praise the Cellebrite system, not everyone is happy.

The American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan has previously expressed concern about how its state police force has used the gadget, saying it can “quickly download data from cell phones without the owner of the cell phone knowing it”.

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Henry Sapiecha

Cash, missing cars fail to spark criminal probe into Australian indigenous body

Federal opposition indigenous affairs spokesman Shayne Neumann says Warren Mundine has questions to answer.image

Federal opposition indigenous affairs spokesman Shayne Neumann says Warren Mundine has questions to answer. Photo: Andrew Meares

Directors of a defunct Western Australian indigenous corporation have not been charged with any offences despite an investigation uncovering 40 suspect transactions involving hundreds of thousands of dollars and 64 missing cars.

Tony Abbott meets with Warren Mundine, during a visit to Arnhem Land in 2013.image

Tony Abbott meets with Warren Mundine, during a visit to Arnhem Land in 2013. Photo: Alex Ellinghausen

A Fairfax Media investigation has found the Office of the Registrar of Indigenous Corporations amassed evidence suggesting criminal and civil offences during a two-year probe into former directors and executives of the organisation.

But it chose not to refer material to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions for review after it deemed the evidence might not be sufficient to secure convictions.

Several of those directors who were under investigation now lead the board of the Western Australia’s Western Desert Lands Aboriginal Corporation and control the proceeds of its multimillion-dollar mining deals, which include a contentious agreement brokered by a company part-owned by Prime Minister Tony Abbott’s top indigenous adviser, Warren Mundine.Fairfax Media revealed on Saturday how a company part-owned by Mr Mundine was used by listed miner Reward Minerals to change the Western Desert corporation’s stance on not allowing mining on a Pilbara sacred site called Lake Disappointment.

A senior Western Desert corporation executive held a secret stake in the negotiating company part-owned by Mr Mundine and lawyers for the corporation described the Reward deal as having “no validy” and mired by potential conflicts of interest.

Federal opposition indigenous affairs spokesman Shane Neumann said Mr Mundine had questions to answer about his business relationships and corporate activities. “There are issues of good governance here to be explored. Mr Mundine is a very public figure and has enormous access to government,” Mr Neumann said.Greens indigenous affairs spokeswoman Rachel Siewert said the revelations were “extremely concerning”. “If this is as bad as it looks, it’s an example of how Aboriginal organisations are being manipulated and profits ripped off when it’s fundamental for their economic development.”

Fairfax Media as obtained an email written in 2011 by a senior ORIC investigator showing 40 suspect transactions involving hundreds of thousands of dollars withdrawn by former directors and executives of the defunct Western Desert Puntukurnuparna Aboriginal Corporation had been identified.

The investigator wrote that the transactions would “likely be included in a brief of evidence … so that criminal/civil prosecutions can be considered and commenced accordingly”. A separate investigation could only find five of the 69 cars registered to the organisation.

But ORIC eventually decided not to press for charges and instead the organisation was liquidated last year by the tax office. The decision staggered the organisation’s former chief executive, Bruce Hill, who asked ORIC to investigate in 2010.

“Bottom line is innocent members have been asset stripped and the guilty not held to account,” Mr Hill said.

Those probed by ORIC include the chairman of the Western Desert land corporation’s board, Brian Samson, deputy chair Teddy Biljabu and director Bruce Booth.

Evidence obtained by ORIC during its probe included cheque butts and bank statements showing directors and executives at the defunct body withdrew huge sums without approval and purchased cars without approval.

In his February report, Pitcher Partners liquidator Bryan Hughes stated that the defunct organisation’s records were either missing or incomplete. Its former directors have refused to send Mr Hughes their records.

“I consider that poor financial control and poor strategic management were also likely factors, which contributed to the corporation’s failure,” he wrote.

Mr Hughes also identified a $409,640 transaction “which I consider may constitute a transaction voidable by a liquidator”. It is possible the transaction involved “unreasonable director related transactions”.

Directors of the defunct organisation used their influence at the Western Desert corporation to convince the Martu people to transfer $730,000 to help fund a bail out.

In a statement, ORIC said its investigation into the defunct organisation was the most extensive it had conducted. But a review of the evidence deemed it insufficient to refer to Commonwealth prosecutors.

“The decision was not a judgment that certain events had not occurred,” ORIC’s statement said.

Mr Mundine, who has declined to answer questions from Fairfax Media, recently criticised ORIC for its “kid glove” approach to regulating indigenous corporations, saying people had gotten away with “blue murder”.

Know more?

Henry Sapiecha


DNA scanning in the palm of your hand


Inked fingerprints on paper forms. We’ve come a long way from the days when that was the height of forensic technology.

GE is light years ahead after launching a breakthrough portable DNA scanner at the 25th World Congress of the International Society for Forensic Genetics in Melbourne in early September.

The scanner uses a new process called microfluidics to present a DNA analysis and database match in only 85 minutes – a process that used to take at least 48 hours.

Long delays in DNA tests can cause frustrating delays in police criminal investigations, with some results taking four days to return from forensic laboratories.

“We have miniaturised a forensic laboratory and put it on a single chip, which contains in a dried form all of the chemistry needed to do DNA extraction and identification,” said Dr Brian Hood, General Manager of GE Life Science in Australia and New Zealand.

The chip is only used for a one-off analysis within the scanner and is designed to be disposable. Dr Hood said it resolves issues which plague forensic laboratories like service engineering and calibration of chemicals and consumables.

Up to five DNA samples can be processed at once, and can be instantly matched to a central database if there’s an internet connection available.

Australia’s national criminal DNA database, operated by the government agency Crimtrac, holds around 700,000 DNA profiles. These can be matched to convicted criminals, suspects, or to other crime scenes.

“This will give the police what they need – an answer, in a very short amount of time, on whether a person is a possible match to the database,” Dr Hood said.

The scanner is designed to be portable and will withstand the shocks and vibrations felt in regular forms of transport. The machine can be used after just a few hours training.

The DNA scanner will also be very useful for disaster victim identification after events like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, which killed over 230,000 people.

“Every accredited forensics laboratory in the world contributed to identify the vast numbers of people involved in the Tsunami disaster,” Dr Hood said.

“Something like this that’s portable and fast could have been a huge benefit to that sort of work.”

Henry Sapiecha