Australian government agencies' use of phone-hacking technology grows
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Australian government agencies' use of phone-hacking technology grows

The Immigration Department and the Great Barrier Reef watchdog are the latest government agencies confirmed to have bought phone-hacking technology.

The hardware, developed by Israeli-company Cellebrite, is used by law enforcement and defence agencies and can bypass user locks, download passwords and data – including texts and emails – and recover location information.

The Cellebrite system has a cable for every phone on the market.

The Cellebrite system has a cable for every phone on the market.

Photo: Tessa Stevens

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority and Immigration Department joins a list of agencies using the tool, which includes the Department of Human Services and the Employment Department.

Meanwhile, data from the Department of Human Services – which includes Centrelink and Medicare – show the welfare body is slowly increasing its use of the technology in fraud investigations.

Cellebrite gained global attention in 2015 after the FBI was believed to have use it to help bypass the password on the iPhone of San Bernardino terrorist attacker Syed Rizwan Farook.

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The tool can only be used if the agency is in physical possession of the target phone.

According to public documents, the reef protection authority bought Cellebrite technology in March 2015.

The Department of Immigration and Border Protection has spent over $80,000 on Cellebrite since 2011.

Its most recent purchase from a Canberra-based company was valued over $53,000.

The reef authority bought equipment worth over $15,000 from a Melbourne-based provider, which also sells weapons and technology to the Defence Department.

Do you know more? Contact finbar.omallon@fairfaxmedia.com.au or use the Signal smartphone app to message 0437 464 126.

The Department of Human Services confirmed it began using Cellebrite's technology in 2013 to investigate suspected fraud cases or serious non-compliance.

Centrelink classifies non-compliance as failing to make job appointments, interviews or other required activities to receive welfare.

The department's use of Cellebrite has more than doubled since the 2013-14 financial year. In that year, it used Cellebrite 15 times executing six search warrants. Last financial year, Cellebrite was used 48 times in the execution of 15 search warrants.

While its use of the technology is increasing, the tool is used in only a small fraction of the department's investigations.

But the department's investigation caseload has dropped by almost two-thirds since it began using Cellebrite.

In 2013-14, the department had 3107 fraud investigations. By last financial year, it had only 1189.

The Employment Department confirmed it also began using the technology in 2015 but only used it once in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 financial years.

A reef protection authority spokeswoman said the agency had used the tool under the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Act.

"The Marine Park Authority only uses this system where an inspector has reasonable grounds to suspect and offence against an environmental law," she said.

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She said this included breaches of the act, as well as breaches of a zoning plan implemented in 2004, which significantly increased the amount of "no-take" fishing zones inside the park.

"One of the Marine Park Authority's functions is to investigate potential breaches of this legislation, including the Zoning Plan 2003, to protect the biodiversity of the Great Barrier Reef and ensure sustainable use."

Finbar O'Mallon

Finbar O'Mallon is a reporter for The Canberra Times

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