US Schools Are Buying Cell Phone Unlocking Systems

Gizmodo is reporting that schools in the US are buying equipment to unlock cell phones from companies like Cellebrite:

Gizmodo has reviewed similar accounting documents from eight school districts, seven of which are in Texas, showing that administrators paid as much $11,582 for the controversial surveillance technology. Known as mobile device forensic tools (MDFTs), this type of tech is able to siphon text messages, photos, and application data from student’s devices. Together, the districts encompass hundreds of schools, potentially exposing hundreds of thousands of students to invasive cell phone searches.

The eighth district was in Los Angeles.

Posted on December 18, 2020 at 6:53 AM19 Comments


Goat December 18, 2020 7:43 AM

It’s funny this is what they are using their funds for this. No surprise they are producing facebook addicts!!

Romain December 18, 2020 7:47 AM


I’m a little biased on this one. I was once involved in high-school shenanigans that ended up it court. Nothing serious, but had it been handled directly by the school, it would have saved everyone time and money, and the punishment would have been more fitting I think.

So on the one hand, I think it could be better for the school to have a little latitude to handle things “in house”, but on the other hand, when you have to resort to cell phone searches, you are probably already outside of shenanigans territory.

Now, I tend to think most people in education still have the well being of the kids at heart, and maybe they can put some sense in some of the troublemakers without jeopardizing their future, but this may be a slippery slope.

Goat December 18, 2020 7:58 AM

“this may be a slippery slope.”

@Romain, relative scarcity is the truth of life and costs come in all forms. Here the cost is monetary as well as freedom, justice and democracy. Regarding handling of shenanigans, I think they are better resolved through non-tech routes of plain discourse(If they aren’t probably courts, have to get to work)

Winter December 18, 2020 8:46 AM

Another example showing children have no rights, most certainly, no rights to privacy. That is a good preparation for their later position as employee.

Christine December 18, 2020 9:21 AM

In the current education system atmosphere, where kids are being penalized for thinking outside the school-provided box, this can be a dangerous thing indeed.

As a parent, who bought a phone and gave it to my child, I would argue the phone actually belongs to the parent and it would be the parent’s rights that are violated, not the child’s…unless the child can show they paid for the phone and pay the phone bill. That is a bigger deal for school districts to deal with than arbitrarily confiscating and examining a child’s phone.

Chris December 18, 2020 10:40 AM

This all seems like a natural milestone on the slippery slope that is “zero tolerance.” Teachers and school administrators have been stripped of their ability to exercise professional judgment and aren’t allowed to weigh the relative risks and benefits associated with the disciplinary aspect of their jobs. Unfortunately, “zero tolerance” also leaves the adults accountable yet powerless to respond in scale by imposing reduced punishment. If the school administrators are not already constitutionally inclined to be “petty tyrants,” as the EFF calls them, zero-tolerance pushes them over that line.

If you were placed in this situation, wouldn’t your relationship with the students in your charge become suspicious and adversarial by default? And, darn it, don’t you want to know what the little creeps in your charge are up to? This is fertile soil for security vendor salespeople to till.

bcs December 18, 2020 10:56 AM

On zero tolerance, the schools I attended had a zero tolerance policy on violence where “violence” was (and still is) defined as “any word, look, act, or gesture that is offensive or hurts a person’s body, feelings, or possessions.”

I took one look at that and asked what would happen if I ended up on stage at a school assembly and got stage fright: the entire school looking at me hurt my feelings, so they all get suspended right? And me calling them on that I’m sure hurt someone’s feelings, so I get suspended too?

Zero tolerance, zero sense.

(And I said that as someone who was and would be on the receiving end of a significant amount of actual violence.)

Elgin December 18, 2020 11:16 AM

Christine says: “In the current education system atmosphere..”

Well, most all Americans are unable to step back and view the big-picture of the U.S. public school system (‘atmosphere’). It is fundamentally a coercive system of government control/supervision over all children.

Universal truancy laws force all children into government public schools (or strictly government regulated alternatives). 90% of American children attend actual government schools during the most formative years of their lives.

Parents are forced to deliver their children on most weekdays to the control of government bureaucrats (administrators/teacher). The children are deprived of normal civil rights protections (e.g., 4th and 5th Amendments).

Unsurprising that public school staff develop a strong mindset of strict control over their young captives.

Clive Robinson December 18, 2020 11:41 AM

@ Christine,

As a parent, who bought a phone and gave it to my child, I would argue the phone actually belongs to the parent

The wrong thing to say (ever).

You have to set it as being on loan for emergancy and other safety and family purposes to every one you talk to especiallt other parents. Saying that it’s a necescity as there are nolonger working/safe to use pay phones in the area.

That is it is important to show it’s

1, Necessity to carry for child safety.
2, Your rights as owner.

And importantly common knowledge that is why your child has a phone on loan (it also helps if you put numbers in menory labled “Emergancy”.

When push comes to shove and these things do it’s a balance of probability issue.

That way it can not be argued by the authorities it’s a “gift” or “payment in lieu” of services rendered or other such nonsense their legal representatives etc will try to argue. Which they almost certainly will try to argue to brow beat both the child and parent.

There are other things you would have to argue as well. One of which is the schools right to say what the rules are on their premises. When it comes to “the safety of the child” it’s far from cut and dry as the school enployees and the employees of the school district are only “in loco parentis” thus the rights of the actual parent or gardian remain as the over riding factor and have to for good and proper reasons. It’s a point nost administrators do not like being brought up because it stops their general policies taking priority and they certainly do not like publicity shining the light of reason and public opinion on them.

For instance there was a case in the US where a six year old child who was a cub scout took a “spork” to school, and the school not only took it from the child, they baned the child the reasoning was that in effect it was their right to say it was a “knife”[1] thus fell under the district “weapons” policy.

The NY Times kind of broke the story nationaly,

But did not mention the final outcome later, that I’m aware of and is worth knowing. It’s not that easy to find a decade later but this article describes it in the middle,

Oh apparently there is still no evidence that “zero tolerance” policies work, hence the FUD school districts put out with the usuall “think of the children” dog whistle statments. But there is plenty of evidence that rates of street crime are actually dropping (one reason suggested is that TEL is nolonger added to vehicle fuel).

But the simple fact is “pocket knives” were common when I was in school, my father who was a charted accountant actually carried two. One for rough work the other for fine work and both were kept sharp, and he had carried both since being a child and as an adult fighting during WWII and on through the rest of his life. Likewise I used to carry two, a Swiss Army one on my key ring and a more sturdy bladed one as part of a tool kit I carry in my every day bag to fix things like push bikes and minor electrical items and many other things. However the London Met Police and imbecilic politicians have “discoraged me”. Because it caused a stand up full blooded argument between me and an Inspector on my rights under European Law of “free trade” and led to me taking out legal action against them. They finally buckled but not before they had “destroyed” both knives, neither of which was an illegal knife or illegaly carried. With the UK leaving the EU I fully expect the imbeciles to throw their weight around even more in a fashion much beloved by those in the past that wore jack-boots.

[1] Yes sporks have a cutting edge, but actually less so than cutlery used by children in school dining rooms, about the equivalent of using the,edge of a spoon to cut with. It’s a point that school administrators try to cover up and the press often do not point out as they should.

Anon December 18, 2020 12:05 PM

No child in a public school system for the most part “owns” a phone. It belongs to the parent(s) for their child’s use.

A schools district should never be in the place to act as “law enforcement” to ever search phones if a criminal act has occurred. The problem however (including in Texas) is that more and more school districts are phasing in their own police departments, no different what public universities do.

I don’t have a lot of trust of public schools systems, since they can do levels of overreach and abuse of power against students who can always be guilty and forced to prove innocence.

Chris December 18, 2020 12:20 PM

@ Christine & @Clive Robinson:

I don’t think the actual ownership of a smartphone brought into a school counts for as much as you think it does. The school can argue that the ownership is irrelevant to a search of a device when that device is being used to facilitate a crime on school grounds. And, since the child was actually the victim of the crime in the Gizmodo story, I don’t think any reasonable parent would object to such a search after the fact.

Even in the San Bernardino shooter case, I’m not aware that anyone seriously argued that the FBI had no right to search the shooter’s phone, only that the government had no right to demand that Apple help them unencrypt it, let alone create a universal backdoor.

Clive Robinson December 18, 2020 5:48 PM

@ Chris,

The school can argue that the ownership is irrelevant to a search of a device when that device is being used to facilitate a crime on school grounds.

Not when a minor is involved or someone with a protected status.

An independent and responsible adult has to be involved, to ensure the child’s rights are protected, and the parents can at the begining of the childs entry into the school send the school administrator a letter indicating who aside from themselves is to act in that role, and they can expressly forbid anyone who works for or who has worked for the school, the education board or had any previous dealings with them.

There is a standard form letter for doing this in which you can name key individuals by name role or both that will be held legaly responsible if your instructions are not carried out.

When you single administrators out from the herd the herd tends to turn on them to protect it’s self. Especially in the UK when the action is a “Tort” (civil offence) rather than a “criminal” one (in the UK you can get legal aid for criminal cases, but not for torts which tends to make defending such actions very very expensive, and can cost organisations hundreds of millions a year to defend (look up UK NHS legal costs).

At heart administrators are cowards and realise when it’s a tort their home, pension, job and future employability are on the line, they tend to loose their bullish confidence rapidly, especially when the herd pushes them out on their own.

I’ve been through it before and have had to apply such leverage. You could here the back peddling in the headmasters voice from fifty feet away especially when they were presented with a written description of what is “Misfeasance in Public Office” or nonfeasance [1][2] is and the penalties / tarrifs and told to run it through their legal representative and told what the cost would be for a QC’s Opinion and judicial review prior to such action.

[1] In the US you would probably push for “Malfeasance in Public Office”. The sticking point is “showing malice” as well as “an unlawful act”. Which is why you send the letter at the begining of the child attending a school. Thus the simple production of the letter gives sufficient grounds to cause lawyers to tred carefully, and generally advise settlement at the earliest opportunity.

[2] In the UK whilst you can go for malfeasance it is not necessarily the best tactic,

The US has similar legislation as it derives from Old English Law, but it’s had a few centuries to diverge a bit.

JonKnowsNothing December 19, 2020 7:56 AM

@Clive @All

There are parents who use these phones to verify the location of the children.

RL: It is a safety aspect in this case. When the children attended a new school the administration required all phones to be turned off. This sent an alarm to the parents and a trip to the administration where it was emphasized the phones were not to be turned off. The phone could be stored inside the desk but not off.

The other side of the issues is that parents have very little idea what their children really do with the phones.

RL: Over the years, I’ve recommended many parents to actually sit with their children and play the computer/on line games with them. Rarely does it happen. The language filters on many games cannot keep with the torrent of Expletive Deleted comments and interactions.

What are they doing with it and why?

RL: Before the USA Supreme Court ruled that data on a phone required a warrant, a young person took a lot of photos of a (then illegal) marijuana field. The young person got picked up and the phone data scraped off. I explained to the parent about the geolocation data tags and other items that would link the photos to the young person and as it was illegal at that time, there was a potential for long years in prison. The parent had no idea this was going on.
Luckily for that person, SCOTUS ruled that a warrant was needed and the case was dropped. I doubt the young person even understood how close they came to hard time.

Phones are useful but they are a two way street and a view into that many cannot imagine is going on when parental glare is not present. Sometimes parental glare means nothing anyway.

Erik December 19, 2020 8:08 AM

The only real solution is strong and public pushback by parents against the erosion of the rights of their children. Technical (give the kid a phone that’s just a phone) “fixes” or rules-lawyering (“The phone is mine, not the child’s”) actually serve to legitimize the school’s abuse of privacy. You’re in effect saying “this rule is fine, but doesn’t apply to me/my child because…” when you really need to be saying “this rule is not fine for my child or anyone’s child.” Because otherwise even if you succeed this time in preventing them from invading this child’s privacy, they’ll find another way next time.

We need to make the idea of invading a person’s privacy a thing that’s not OK, even if that person is underage.

MarkH December 19, 2020 12:54 PM

Without taking any position on the merits, I’ll try to cast some light/shadow on the law.

The U.S. legal system is modeled on that of Britain at the time of revolutionary war: it’s a common law system in which precedent (certain prior court rulings) are effectively incorporated into the law.

During my lifetime a number of students’ rights cases have reached high courts, or even SCOTUS. The resulting rulings have established that in the school environment, children have diminished rights of privacy, and of free expression.

As I understand it, the general reasoning has been that a degree of impairment of those rights may be a practical necessity for schools to carry out their fundamental responsibilities.

This is consistent with U.S. legal tradition of interpreting abstract rights in light of practical constraints; an example of this is the list of exceptions to free-speech rights which have long been considered by U.S. courts.

I don’t have any policy suggestions, but simply observe that an appeal to constitutional rights might not be effective.


An anecdote which is not strictly related, but anyway made me laugh:

A few years ago, a member of the Next Generation of my family traveled to a sports competition as part of group of teenagers. One of the boys mislaid his mobile phone; whoever found it turned it in to the local police (as a sort of “lost and found”).

If I understand correctly, the prevailing policy forbade police officers from examination of the phone.

But a police officer noticed an alert for an incoming text from a party identified as “Dealer” — who was in fact a person from whom the boy bought illegal drugs.

The appearance of “Dealer” was interpreted as probable cause for police to examine the phone.

The lad’s reunion with his phone was not a happy one.

Clive Robinson December 19, 2020 3:16 PM

@ MarkH,

The U.S. legal system is modeled on that of Britain at the time of revolutionary war

Err no, it is based on what is known as Old English Law.

The reason is that Britain as such did not come into existance untill 1707 and the Acts of Union between England and Scottland (brought about by “adventuring in the Americas”.

So Britain had more than one legal system in play at the time and still does. The Scotts had retained much of their legal system which alowed for not just Innocent and Guilty results, it also gave the equivalent of case “not proven” which is actually quite a bad finding to have against your name. As most can tell the US legal system does not have that. Also much of the Roman law is still in Scottish law but not English or US.

D. Prendergast December 20, 2020 4:00 AM

The eavesdropping tools that were designed for terrorists and other criminals are now being turned towards American kids. Should they now be placed in camps?

China moves ahead every day. Their schools are places of achievement and competition, not criminalization. Having taught young people in China for several years, I am here to tell you about their hard work and optimism. Most of the Western media does not represent China fairly, nor does it report on the astonishing internal rot of the U.S.A.

The United States is a mess, and it seems to be getting worse and worse.

JonKnowsNothing December 20, 2020 9:39 AM

@D. Prendergast

re: USA schools are a mess

It’s likely that the same applies to other countries with different educational structures.

The “terrorist” tracking started long ago and has seeped into the common view point.

Unfortunately there are incidents like the murder of Samuel Paty where the accomplices are students from the school, giving credence to the at least one aspect of the theory behind the surveillance.

It’s a thorny issue and not just in the USA.

re: China moves ahead every day. Their schools are places of achievement and competition, not criminalization.

I seriously doubt that Tibetans, Uighurs, Mongols and many of the other 56 minorities recognized in China would agree that their education is an achievement and they are not criminalized.

I would suggest that many of the lesser advantaged folks working in Chinese factories for US Product Procurement cycle would consider they “moved ahead”.

The issues are simple; the answers are complex.

ht tps://

Ten people have been charged with assisting the killer, including an imam, a parent of a student, and two students at Paty’s school

[The perpetrator] asked a number of students to point out the teacher. He paid two students, aged 14 and 15, around 300€ to identify Paty….

ht tps://
(url fractured to prevent autorun)

WhiskersInMenlo December 21, 2020 8:53 AM

It is important to remember that these text messages are conversations between the holder of the phone and many others.

Messages to and from doctors,
Messages to and from attorneys.
Messages to and from law enforcement (investigating the school?).

Some students are old enough to vote.

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