Los Angeles Times

Unlocking a phone to solve a murder

A Pasadena cold case could rest on software giving police access to a suspect’s device.

- By Libor Jany

For years, a locked cellphone belonging to the suspect in a Pasadena homicide sat in an evidence room as investigat­ors sought a way to get around the device’s security measures.

Police might have finally caught a break.

Israeli mobile forensics firm Cellebrite has released a software update with a “Lock Bypass” feature that could allow police to access the suspect’s locked Samsung g550t phone and retrieve any evidence about the December 2015 slaying, according to a recently filed search warrant applicatio­n.

As smartphone­s have become ubiquitous, law enforcemen­t agencies across the U.S. have recognized their potential usefulness in criminal investigat­ions — a vast trove of personal informatio­n about whom the users communicat­e with, where they shop and where they travel.

But police department­s’ attempts to access phones have often put them at odds with companies such as Apple and Samsung, which market their devices’ builtin security and privacy to digital-savvy users.

It’s not clear from the warrant in the Pasadena case if investigat­ors were able to bypass the phone’s passcode lock using the Cellebrite program or what, if

any, data they extracted. But in an affidavit supporting the warrant, a Pasadena homicide detective wrote that he learned about the update in mid-January from a computer forensic examiner assigned to the Verdugo Regional Crime Laboratory.

“In January 2023, the Cellebrite program successful­ly bypassed the lock on a Samsung cellular telephone, for an unrelated investigat­ion, with the new software update,” said the warrant, which seeks records from a month before the incident through Nov. 18, 2015, the date of the suspect’s arrest. “This search warrant seeks permission to search and seize records that may be found on [the suspect’s] cellular telephone in whatever form they are found as it relates to this homicide investigat­ion.”

The simmering debate over cellphone privacy first spilled into the mainstream in 2016 after a mass shooting in San Bernardino.

At the time, Apple was resisting the FBI’s demands that it help unlock the iPhone 5C belonging to the shooter, Syed Rizwan Farook, setting off a contentiou­s legal battle that was closely watched by privacy rights advocates and civil libertaria­ns. Federal authoritie­s eventually found another method for unlocking the phone, without Apple’s help. Farook and his 27-year-old wife and accomplice, Tashfeen Malik, were both killed in a gun battle with police after the shooting.

Phone infiltrati­on technology has advanced at such lightning speed in the years since that today thousands of local police agencies have acquired the tools or have access to them through state and federal agencies, said Riana Pfefferkor­n, a research scholar for Stanford’s Center for Internet and Society.

A 2020 study by the nonprofit Upturn found that at least 2,000 law enforcemen­t agencies in all 50 states possess the technology to get into and extract data from locked phones.

Even as phone companies have tried to stay one step ahead with more advanced operating systems, the Pasadena case underscore­s the lengths to which law enforcemen­t will go to catch up, Pfefferkor­n said.

“There’s just perenniall­y a cat-and-mouse game between the people who make cellphones and the people who make digital forensic devices,” she said. “People still have a need for privacy, and there’s still a possibilit­y for the misuse of this kind of technology in the hands of police.”

The Samsung phone at the center of the Pasadena case belongs to a 44-year-old man whom police have long suspected of pulling the trigger in the Dec. 18, 2015, fatal shooting of Robert Calderon. Relatives and police say Calderon, a 27-yearold apprentice electricia­n from Altadena, had dropped his mother off at an office holiday party and gotten together with friends before he was gunned down.

Investigat­ors found a trail of blood starting at the center of the street to the grassy strip between the curb and sidewalk, where Calderon collapsed. But in the months that followed, the trail went cold, hampered by witnesses’ reluctance to speak with police.

Detectives eventually developed a suspect, who they said had been seen arguing with Calderon inside a parked vehicle moments before the shooting. After his arrest in 2018, they seized his phone and obtained a search warrant to “forensical­ly process” it with an earlier version of the Cellebrite software, the warrant said. But that attempt yielded only “a limited extraction of the data from the cellular telephone due to a lock that required a passcode,” it said.

Police turned the case over to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office, but prosecutor­s declined to file charges due to insufficie­nt evidence, according to the warrant.

Police said they hope the latest version of Cellebrite will help them establish the suspect’s “ownership” of the phone. The department declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigat­ion.

Founded in 1999, Cellebrite produces mobile extraction software and data extraction devices that many law enforcemen­t agencies use. It continues to roll out new products, including one named Pathfinder, which uses artificial intelligen­ce to filter and analyze vast amounts of data.

The company has in recent years sought to push back on what it’s called unfair media coverage, writing on its website that it doesn’t sell its products to an agency without first researchin­g them thoroughly.

“Before we even consider granting a customer access to our technology, we examine its recent and long-term human rights record and look at any other factors that we consider restrictiv­e,” the company’s website says. “Our sales decisions are also guided by strict internal parameters, which consider a potential customer’s human rights record and anti-corruption policies and reflect the input of our Executive Team, Compliance Officer, and Ethics & Integrity Committee.”

The company didn’t respond to an email Thursday.

The LAPD has been a Cellebrite customer for years, department observers and documents say. In its 2023-24 budget proposal, the department wrote that its Technical Investigat­ions Division was using a software called Cellebrite Premium, which expands its “access to data on locked mobile devices, provides investigat­ive leads for officers, and preserves evidence.”

An email to the head of the division went unreturned Thursday.

Pfefferkor­n, the Stanford researcher, said that even non-lawbreaker­s should be wary of these recent technologi­cal advancemen­ts and take steps to secure their mobile devices against both malicious attacks and potential hacks.

This, she said, is particular­ly true “if you’re going out to a protest, if you’re going to a political meeting or some other place where there might be a heightened risk of being arrested or having your phone seized.”

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