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Schools are buying phone-hacking tools — and they don't need warrants to search

The tools are the same or similar to ones law enforcement officials use against mass shooters and domestic terrorists.

Published onDecember 11, 2020

HUAWEI P40 Pro In display fingerprint scanner
  • A report from Gizmodo proves that some US schools are buying phone-cracking hardware for decrypting students’ phones at school.
  • School officials do not need warrants to seize and search smartphones owned by students.

Over at Gizmodo, there’s a new report related to smartphone security. The report shows how certain schools here in the United States have purchased phone-cracking systems from companies such as Cellebrite. These tools allow school officials to decrypt students’ smartphones and retrieve data those students may have erased.

Related: What is encryption?

Cellebrite primarily creates phone-hacking tools for government agencies such as the FBI. Those tools are used to crack the phones of criminal suspects. Suspects’ phones could have evidence of crimes on them and, with the proper warrants, law enforcement can use phone-cracking hardware to bypass smartphone security and gain access to the data.

The fact that schools have these systems at their disposal is concerning on its own. What’s even more concerning is that school officials don’t need a warrant to search phones at school. As long as they are reasonably sure the student did something wrong and the phone would have proof of that, they can legally seize and decrypt that phone.

Phones at school: Fair game

Gizmodo’s reporting confirms that at least eight schools in the US purchased phone-decrypting hardware from several different companies, including Cellebrite. One school spent almost $12,000 on the equipment.

If a school official, for any reason, wants to check out what’s going on with a student’s phone, there’s nothing stopping them from doing so. As long as they can prove that they are reasonably suspicious that the student broke the law or a school policy, there’s nothing the student can do. They can’t refuse the seizure or search. In fact, most students by now are used to the idea of teachers taking their phones at school for disciplinary reasons. What they likely aren’t used to is knowing that school officials could crack into that phone if they wanted.

The writers of the Gizmodo article want to hear from any high school students in the US who think their phones have been searched in this manner. Please click here and scroll to the bottom of the article for contact information.

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