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Schools in the U.S. Are Using Phone-Hacking Tools to Spy on Students

It wasn't long ago when schools started distributing notebook and laptop computers to their students. The trend quickly picked up around the world, with children of all ages receiving free or discounted computers from their schools. While the majority of these initiatives had nothing but the best intentions, some critics suggested that schools would be actively using these devices to spy on students and, by extension, family members within the privacy of their own homes.

A class-action lawsuit was even brought against the Lower Merion School District, located in Ardmore, PA, for spying on their own students in 2010. During this incident, school officials were accused of remotely activating the built-in webcams included in student laptops without their consent or knowledge. Outside of this case, however, confirmed reports of schools using their laptop programs with malicious intent are few and far between.

However, as recently reported, some schools within the United States are actively purchasing phone-hacking tools that similar – and in some cases, identical – to the tools that are used by hackers. Not only can these tools be used when investigating crimes, but, as you'll find out, they can just as easily be used for malicious purposes.

Enter Cellebrite

Between 2016 and 2020, there are multiple reports of school officials using services provided by a company known as Cellebrite. Touted as providing software that "empowers law enforcement, government agencies, and enterprises to access, manage, and analyze digital data," Cellebrite is based out of Israel and is a subsidiary of Sunsoft.

In at least one case, Cellebrite's tools were actually used by law enforcement officials. Others, however, see large purchases being made – directly to Cellebrite and others – from schools in and around Texas. Some purchases exceed $11,000, while others tried to hide their payments by writing "General Supplies" on the check.

But they're not just buying random software. Instead, these school districts are purchasing very specific tools – known as mobile data forensic tools, or MDFTs – as a means of accessing text messages, photos and other data contained within student smartphones.

The fact that Cellebrite is collaborating so frequently with law enforcement officials in the United States is troubling enough, but most people aren't even aware that their children's schools might be using some of the same utilities. While there certainly are some convincing arguments for the technology, and it has already been used to stop crimes in certain cases, it's far too easy to take advantage of these systems and use them for nefarious purposes.

When you consider how many schools have already purchased MDFTs for their own use in the state of Texas alone, the number is easily in the hundreds. This alone could expose thousands of children – and their families – to highly invasive searches from school personnel and even outside hackers.

Cellebrite recently made headlines when they became the primary choice for the FBI in the field of mobile forensics. To find out more information about Cellebrite, including details on any breaking news, please visit their official website at {{|}}.


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