Schools are using FBI hacking tools to access students’ phones

In brief: A damning Gizmodo report has revealed that numerous school districts have purchased the digital tools the FBI use, and are leveling them against students. Even without student consent, school officers are able to access messages, files, and sometimes login keys to cloud services.
Gizmodo found that out of five thousand randomly sampled public schools and school districts, eight admitted to purchasing MDFTs (mobile device forensics tools) on their public budget reports. Schools are not always required to itemize their budgets, so it’s likely that these are just a fraction of the schools that have obtained MDFTs.

In March of this year, the North East Independent School District spent $6,695 on Cellebrite services. Cellebrite is an Israeli designer of forensic hardware, and it’s believed that their technology was how the FBI unlocked the San Bernardino shooter’s iPhone. The FBI spent more than $2 million on Cellebrite hardware between 2012 and 2016, according to a Vice report, and has probably spent more since.

In May, the Cypress-Fairbanks ISD paid Oxygen Forensics, another MDFT designer, $2,899. The most spent by any school or district was $11,582. Purchases of MDFT services extend back to as early as 2013.

A mobile Cellebrite tool

In America, the Fourth Amendment protects citizens from unreasonable searches. Law enforcement generally requires a warrant to access a suspect’s device. However, a Supreme Court ruling from 1985 grants school officers the ability to search students’ personal effects without a warrant, and this has been interpreted to extend to digital devices. If a school officer has reasonable cause to believe that accessing a student’s device will generate evidence that proves that a law or a school policy has been broken, then they can legally employ an MDFT without the student’s consent.

Fortunately, though, schools often have better internal rules surrounding the use of MDFTs. The Los Angeles Unified School District, which manages over half a million students, requires the Los Angeles School Police Department to obtain warrants to use MDFTs on students’ devices. But there are special circumstances in which the district’s non-police officers can use MDFTs, and it’s unclear if they need a warrant or not.

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