American Public Schools Are Now Paying $11.5k to Buy Cellebrite

By Bill Toulas / December 12, 2020

Public schools in the United States may be short on teachers, lacking teaching equipment, laptops, and quality meals, but they are willing to pay $11,500 to buy Cellebrite’s “mobile device forensic” tools that can extract data from locked smartphones. That is according to a Gizmodo report based on public documents that reveal this extraordinary practice.

Cellebrite has been selling its software tools (UFED) to U.S. law enforcement agencies, from County Sheriff's offices all the way up to the feds. Schools, though, are a new addition to the firm’s clientele, and it naturally raises many questions. Why do school administrators feel the need to spend a portion of their extremely limited financial resources on mobile forensic tools, and how exactly are they using them?

The technology is supposedly there to help school admins find minor abuse cases, romance between students and teachers, bullying, suicidal tendencies, and mass-shooting plans. While all of that sounds like a noble platform to base your surveillance upon, wouldn’t it be within the scope of the police’s role to investigate all of the above? Since when has the school administrators’ role extended to envelop such responsibilities, and what training have they received in relation to the ethical use of surveillance tools?

The documents that detail the purchases indicate that it’s been a while since surveillance tools have silently invaded the American school system, and nobody even noticed. There are at least eight school districts (seven in Texas) using the controversial tech to access and analyze text messages, photos, and app data from hundreds of thousands of students’ smartphones.

And Cellebrite isn’t the only company involved in this operation. The documents show that ‘Oxygen Forensics’ and ‘Susteen’ have also sold software and tech to schools, possibly offering a different device cracking specialization and enabling the admins to cover all device models. Gizmodo reports that from the sample of 5,000 public schools they analyzed, there were several cases of unconfirmed purchases too, which reported “general items” or bundled the cost of surveillance tools with other, unrelated software products.

It really looks like the situation has gotten out of hand, resulting in a very invasive school environment that actually teaches children to abolish every sense of privacy and accept being scrutinized whenever their teachers feel like it. This creates a huge potential for abuse or unethical deployment. It is just absurd and should be regulated strictly by personal data and privacy protection laws - something that the U.S. is still missing on the federal level.

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