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When the FBI Includes a Telephone It Can't Crack, It Calls These Israeli Hackers


EARLIER THIS YEAR, in the height of a very public battle among the FBI and Apple over whether the laptop maker would assistance decrypt a mass murderer’s locked iPhone, it appeared that a little-known, 17-year-old Israeli firm named Cellebrite Mobile Synchronization might ultimately get its moment in the spotlight.

Right after weeks of insisting that only Apple could support the feds unlock the phone of San Bernardino killer Syed Rizwan Farook, the Justice Division abruptly revealed that a third celebration had provided a technique to get into the device. Speculation swirled around the identity of that party till an Israeli newspaper reported it was Cellebrite.

It turns out the corporation was not the third party that helped the FBI. A Cellebrite representative stated as a great deal in the course of a panel discussion at a high-tech crimes conference in Minnesota this previous April, according to a conference attendee who spoke with all the Intercept. And sources who spoke with the Washington Post earlier this year also ruled out Cellebrite’s involvement, even though Yossi Carmil, among Cellebrite’s CEOs, declined to comment around the matter when asked by The Intercept.


However the interest around the false report obscured a larger, much more interesting truth: Cellebrite’s researchers have come to be, during the last decade, the FBI’s go-to hackers for mobile forensics. Numerous other federal agencies also depend on the company’s knowledge to have into mobile devices. Cellebrite has contracts with all the FBI going back to 2009, based on federal procurement records, but also with all the Drug Enforcement Administration, the key Service, and DHS’s Customs and Border Protection. U.S. state and regional law enforcement agencies use Cellebrite’s researchers and tools at the same time, as does the U.S. military, to extract information from phones seized from suspected terrorists and other individuals in battle zones.

The firm is poised to seize a prominent and somewhat ominous spot inside the public imagination; just as Apple has come to become observed as a warrior for digital protection and privacy against overreaching government surveillance, Cellebrite is emerging as its law-and-order counterpart, endeavoring to make tools to break by way of the barriers Apple along with other phone makers erect to defend data.

“Vendors … are implementing extra and more security functions into their product, and that is absolutely difficult for us,” says Shahar Tal, director of research at Cellebrite. “But we’ve solved these challenges ahead of [and] we continue to solve these challenges currently.”

In July, months soon after the unknown third party offered the FBI using a strategy for finding into the San Bernardino telephone - an iPhone 5C running iOS 9 - Cellebrite announced that it had created its personal technique for bypassing the phone’s password/encryption lock. And also the firm is confident that it is going to be capable of deal successfully with future safety changes Apple could make to its phones within the wake in the San Bernardino case.

“If it is going to become performed, it’s going to become accomplished in this building,” Carmil told The Intercept during a go to for the company’s Israeli headquarters earlier this year.

Cellebrite’s ascent comes at a time when mobile forensics has never ever been much more significant to law enforcement and intelligence agencies. Information extracted from phones has eclipsed information extracted from desktop and laptop computer systems in current years, because the former can yield not simply detailed logs about a user’s activities, interests, and communications, but additionally, in quite a few cases, map the user’s whereabouts over weeks and months to make a pattern of life.

The story of Cellebrite’s emergence as a forensic powerhouse is definitely the story of how mobile forensics itself has evolved over the years - beginning very first inside the late ’90s having a basic tool for migrating user contacts from a single cellphone to a further, which morphed in 2007 to a remedy for harvesting address book data from PDAs and feature phones, to the complicated multistage operations necessary today to bypass the sophisticated security mechanisms built in to smartphones.

Ahead of Competitors

Cellebrite isn’t the only forensic game in town. It features a number of rivals around the globe, each and every with varying strengths and weaknesses. They contain the Swedish firm MicroSystemation AB, also known as MSAB, whose XRY tool is utilised by the Department of Homeland Safety, the U.S. military and other individuals; the U.S. firms Susteen, Paraben, and BlackBag Technologies; Magnet Forensics, a Canadian firm; and Oxygen Forensics, a Russian firm whose prospects involve, according to its web-site, the IRS, U.S. Army, DOD, DHS, plus the Justice Department.

But Robert Osgood, an FBI supervisory agent for extra than 25 years until he retired from the bureau in 2011, says that Cellebrite and MSAB will be the leaders.

“They’re the two 800-pound gorillas within the mobile forensic device world” on the subject of extracting information, says Osgood, who now directs a graduate system in computer forensics at George Mason University.
Though he says the FBI buys other forensic tools, they are primarily utilised in specific niches - as an example, parsing and analyzing subsets of data, which include information connected with social networking apps, soon after it has already been extracted using a Cellebrite or MSAB tool.

Heather Mahalik, who trains about 400 federal and local law enforcement workers a year in advanced mobile forensics for the SANS Institute, says that even amongst these two giants, Cellebrite has been edging out its competitor over the last two years.

“There are uniqueness and little tricks in each of them that definitely help … but I'd be lying to say it is still close [between them], since I know that Cellebrite functions improved for acquisition,” she told The Intercept. Mahalik says she surveys her students every year to see which tools they’re applying around the job. Two years ago, Cellebrite and MSAB have been practically neck and neck, but in recent times, she says her students mention only Cellebrite. A 2012 annual report from MSAB acknowledges that Cellebrite penetrated the U.S. industry ahead of it did, which helped it acquire an advantage consequently.

Cellebrite’s forensic tools consist of the Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED), hardware bundled with proprietary application that acquires, decodes, and analyzes data from smartphones, tablets, and transportable GPS devices; the UFED4PC, which is standalone software for use on a Pc; along with the UFED Pro, an add-on to the UFED that does something named physical extraction, which siphons data straight from a phone’s flash memory chip. This could contain deleted SMS messages and call histories along with information collected by the phone and apps that the user is unaware is getting collected.

The organization doesn’t enable governments remotely hack into phones for real-time surveillance, because the NSO Group, a different Israeli firm, reportedly does; Cellebrite focuses only on forensics - collecting data and artifacts already made and stored on phones. Physical access for the phone is required for their operate.

Cellebrite’s edge lies in its capability to extract data from far more mobile operating systems and chips than its competitors, often creating options quicker than rivals. Every time a brand new version of a mobile telephone or an update to an current operating method is released, Cellebrite’s team of reverse engineers goes into assault mode to seek out zero-day vulnerabilities as well as other hidden pathways that should give the engineers access to data the telephone makers have worked hard to block. In some cases, they’re currently working on new phones before they’re released. That’s simply because some vendors - Cellebrite will not say which ones, but Apple is not amongst them - ship a sample of their new phones to Cellebrite 3 months before they’re released, giving Cellebrite engineers a head start out in cracking the devices. It’s a practice that dates back for the company’s original business, selling gear to cellular carriers that helped their clients migrate contacts from 1 telephone to a further.

The firm doesn’t place all of its forensic procedures into its automated tools, nevertheless. To prevent competitors from reverse-engineering its computer software to uncover and steal its special procedures and to stop telephone vendors from discovering the vulnerabilities used in its techniques and patching them, some exploits are only performed manually by its staff. Its new solution for extracting information from iPhone 5C’s operating iOS 9 - the San Bernardino phone - can only be performed by a Cellebrite worker as portion from the company’s Advanced Investigative Services division, also known as CAIS. This is a premium unlocking subscription service that costs $250,000 a year in the U.S., based on a DEA procurement record, and will also get customers support in bypassing encryption around the iPhone 4S and 5, the Samsung Galaxy S6 and Galaxy Note 5, and some Galaxy S7s, amongst other devices. Though Cellebrite will also unlock phones as a one-off service, for about $1,500 per phone.

Bypassing encryption, the most vexing problem law enforcement faces nowadays in mobile forensics, is certainly one of Cellebrite’s largest selling points. The company says it has been capable to “crack the code for the screen locks” on a number of phone models, enabling it to access information on the phones with out a password.

“Encryption can be a show stopper for many of the sector,” Tal told The Intercept. “Except for us.”
Cellebrite employs about 520 people, most in Israel, like workers at a manufacturing facility within the southern element on the nation that tends to make its UFED devices. The corporation is actually a subsidiary in the Japanese Sun Corporation, which took ownership of 80 percent of your firm in 2007. And while Sun doesn’t influence the company’s method or direction, Carmil says, its secretive corporate culture seems to have impacted Cellebrite’s strategy with the media. “We aren't telling so much about ourselves. What we inform is what Sun has allowed us to publish,” Carmil told The Intercept.

Cellebrite’s headquarters in Israel occupies quite a few floors of a mid-sized office tower in Petach Tikva, a smaller city east of Tel Aviv that was after a malarial swamp till Jewish pioneers drained it inside the 19th century to make way for citrus groves. The groves have largely been replaced currently with hi-tech enterprise parks just like the one particular Cellebrite shares with IBM and Intel.

Its modern office space was dim and quiet in the course of an afternoon go to by The Intercept in June, except for the sound of Hebrew rock playing softly on a floor where researchers worked. Down a hallway leading towards the investigation offices was a device lab resembling a big, hugely organized shoe closet that contained far more than 15,000 mobile handsets stored in meticulously marked boxes. These are phones that Cellebrite has purchased or received ahead of time from vendors over the years to analyze.

About 200 new phones arrive to the lab month-to-month, every single containing diverse versions of operating systems and configurations, considering that carriers like Verizon and AT&T like to customize the branded phones they offer customers by tweaking the operating system to disable and enable unique features. There are also burner phones - pre-paid throwaway phones that criminals and terrorists frequently favor for the reason that they offer anonymity - and phones from China that pose a special challenge to extracting information simply because they typically lack uniformity and standardization in their design.

Every single phone that arrives for the lab gets a manual inspection to determine the application that’s running on it and any operating technique alterations the vendor has made due to the fact previous versions.
Cellebrite has five forensic study teams: the group that reverse-engineers phones to discover zero-day vulnerabilities and other means of extracting information; a team that focuses on translating binary data into a readable format; a cloud data team; and two teams who perform on analytics, which involves mining data to create leads from distinctive sources of data - one example is, to cross-reference information extracted from a phone to determine all the locations a suspect has been within the past month. The analytics group is also functioning on being in a position to automatically identify activity in video extracted from mobile devices - an act of violence, one example is.

The reverse-engineer group that Tal leads, which is responsible for finding ways into phones, has about two dozen men and women.

“I don’t know what the NSA has for mobile research, but in the forensics business I’ve not been made aware of any sizable investigation group like we have,” says Tal, who joined the business late final year following top the vulnerability study group at the Israeli security firm Checkpoint.

All of this belongs to Cellebrite’s new life as a mobile forensics firm. But the company didn’t begin life in forensics.
Cellebrite launched in December 1999 using a tool that was only designed to transfer the contents of an address book from one particular telephone to a different. Back then, transferring contacts was a time-consuming task that was generally carried out manually. But Cellebrite created the Universal Memory Exchange, a handheld device that resembled the clunky credit card readers airline stewards use to charge for in-flight beers, which could transfer data in between any two phones, regardless of make and model. They later added capabilities for backing up, restoring, and synchronizing information too.

They sold the device initially only to telecoms and telephone stores - initially in Israel and Europe, then within the U.S. By 2005 Cellebrite says the UME was in additional than half of all Verizon and T-Mobile telephone shops inside the U.S, in addition for the telephone departments of big-box chains like Best Buy and Wal-Mart, anything The Intercept was unable to confirm. “Every place that offers cellular-handset selling, repair, and exchange activity, Cellebrite was there,” Carmil asserts.

The UME became so integral towards the mobile phone business enterprise that any time a vendor launched a new telephone, it shipped an advance sample to Cellebrite to ensure that the UME would work with it.

“Because we got all of [the phones] in the mobile operators … no one particular could compete with our telephone support offering for a long time,” says Carmil, who was vice president of Siemens’s commercial division in Israel prior to joining Cellebrite. “We came with 1,500 [phones] supported, where the competition … have been struggling for 100 or 150.”

Cellebrite touts this advance look at phones as one reason for its competitive benefit in forensics. Though MSAB and Paraben, which don’t receive advance phones, naturally downplay early analysis like this, saying it can be counterproductive. “Many with the times the device firmware will change so much prior to the release that a lot from the deep study essential for forensics must be redone [if carried out ahead of time of a device’s release],” Amber Schroader, CEO of Paraben, told The Intercept.

By 2006, Cellebrite was selling its UME devices to law enforcement and safety forces in Israel and abroad. It was at this point that the company’s new clients developed a novel use for the UME that caught Cellebrite’s interest - they were employing it to extract contact logs along with other data from phones seized in criminal investigations. The method worked properly for generating investigative leads, however the extracted data wasn’t forensically sound to serve as evidence in court. So the shoppers, Cellebrite will not say which ones, asked for a solution to show courts that information hadn’t been altered following it was removed from a phone. Cellebrite only had 18 employees at the time, but Carmil and co-CEO Ron Serber immediately saw the potential in steering the firm in a brand new direction.

“We realized that there can be a market place [for mobile forensics] which is already current and established,” Carmil says.

The next year, they released their initially forensic tool, which was basically an extension of the software they have been already using to transfer, back up, and restore data, but with a hash function thrown in to certify the integrity of extracted information.

“That was the beauty in the whole story,” Carmil says. “We brought the same capabilities to a completely diverse core company.”

A hash is a cryptographic representation of data. Run text or information via a mathematical algorithm and you get a value that represents the information. But alter the data or text, and you get a various hash when run by means of the same algorithm. By comparing the hash of data on a telephone with the hash of data presented in court, prosecutors could show it hadn’t been altered. It can also verify that the output from two distinctive forensic tools grabbed the same information - if hashes of your two sets of extracted data are the same.

Over time, because the quantity of mobile phones and information formats grew, Cellebrite added options for decoding varying formats and analyzing extracted information.

The firm wasn’t the very first to enter the mobile forensics field. Micro Systemation beat them to it with a mobile forensics tool in 2003; Paraben came out with a forensic tool for PDAs in 2001, followed in 2004 by a tool for mobile phones. But Cellebrite’s answer could process data from CDMA and TDMA phones, unlike competitors.

It was easy to extract information from mobile phones a decade ago, says Leeor Ben-Peretz, executive vice president for products and organization development at Cellebrite. The devices had none with the sophisticated security protections they have right now and there was a lot of public documentation that detailed programming interfaces, so researchers for the most portion didn’t have to reverse-engineer operating systems and applications to understand how they worked.

All of that changed in January 2007 when Apple introduced the iPhone, a smartphone that blended music, email, text messaging, web browsing, camera, and desktop applications with an easy-to-use touchscreen interface. The following year, Apple added GPS towards the telephone.

It was a forensic bonanza for law enforcement, but Apple wasn’t generous with its documentation the way other phone makers had been. And as subsequent versions with the iPhone came out, Apple added security protections, such as encryption, that made it even extra difficult to extract data. Cellebrite scrambled to expand its analysis team. Carmil will not say why - he’s silent on a lot of things about the organization - but it seems to possess coincided together with the forensic challenges the iPhone brought.

Cellebrite went looking for skilled reverse engineers, particularly amongst former members with the Israeli military’s Unit 8200, the famed tech and signals intelligence unit where several with the country’s elite hackers and vulnerability researchers hone their skills. Tal, Cellebrite’s 33-year-old director of analysis, hails from the unit.

The research efforts paid off and the company’s forensic business soared, as shown by federal procurement records, particularly among U.S. law enforcement. Cellebrite has held about 230 federal contracts over the years, with the initial dating to late 2007 when it signed contracts with the DEA, Secret Service, and also the Navy’s Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command. The National Guard Bureau of Tennessee purchased six UFED devices in 2008, noting in its procurement document that the DEA currently had “over 200” of them. On September 11, 2009, the FBI appears to have signed its initial contract with Cellebrite. And by the end of that year, the corporation says extra than 4,500 UFED devices were in use around the globe.
A thing else was happening to push sales inside the U.S., as outlined by Christa Miller, Cellebrite’s former director of mobile forensics marketing from 2012 to 2015. Wireless carriers have been storing customer text messages for only short periods of time, and law enforcement was desperate to discover a strategy to get evidence from customer devices even soon after it vanished from telecom servers and immediately after users deleted it from their phone, Miller says.

So in November 2009, Cellebrite launched a brand new solution, the UFED Physical Pro, to extract data from the flash memory chip of phones, including deleted information.

There are two primary ways to retrieve information from mobile phones - logical extraction and physical extraction. Logical focuses on content and information the phone allows you to extract naturally through its application programming interface, or API, including contacts and text messages. Sometimes the strategy for extracting the information is well-documented, sometimes it is not and requires reverse-engineering; but in general, the presence with the data is readily apparent to a user or piece of software. Physical extraction, by contrast, gets information from a phone’s flash chips that’s not normally available, like deleted information.

In August 2010, Cellebrite created the means to do physical extractions from iPhones around the market in the time. By 2012, the corporation was also capable to extract deleted messages from BlackBerry and Motorola devices, the latter utilizing a strategy that bypassed the user lock. And in 2014, Samsung’s Galaxy S4 family of devices fell towards the company’s physical extraction strategies as well. MSAB began offering its personal physical extractions from flash memory in 2010.

Cellebrite is secretive about its approaches, but a lawsuit the business filed against MSAB in 2013, accusing its competitor of stealing its Samsung and BlackBerry tactics, offered a few clues about the company’s process. It asserted, in regard to Samsung devices, that the technique didn’t require the phones to become powered-down very first to do the extraction and that the resolution involved a vulnerability in the phone’s memory, or RAM. Cellebrite’s researchers also had to locate many “landing addresses” within the RAM where they could inject a custom bootloader they produced. A bootloader is code built in to a smartphone that launches the phone’s operating program when someone turns on the device. But Cellebrite’s custom bootloader halts the normal boot process in a way that allows their tool to then access and read the phone’s memory.

Cellebrite’s other option, for the BlackBerry smartphone, relied on a vulnerability the business found in the process that BlackBerry phones used for authenticating BlackBerry software delivered from a desktop personal computer towards the phones, which allowed them to load their bootloader to the phones. The Cellebrite bootloader, the enterprise wrote in its lawsuit, piggybacked around the official signed BlackBerry bootloader, “thus tricking the extremely sophisticated BlackBerry safety protocols” into enabling the Cellebrite bootloader to run on BlackBerry devices in spot on the legitimate bootloader.

Procedures like this for doing physical extractions, nonetheless, had been soon thwarted by Apple and also other vendors, who began to increase the security of their phones by encrypting data stored on the devices and adding other security protections. A physical extraction yields a greater wealth of information more than a logical extraction, unless the information extracted is encrypted and therefore unreadable. The dilemma was particularly acute with iPhones.

“Modern iPhones, if the user configures them correctly, are virtually impossible to have into,” says Osgood.

In June 2009, one example is, Apple introduced full-disk encryption with iOS 3 as well as the iPhone 3GS (the term “full-disk encryption” has come to refer to routine encryption of all data stored on a device, even those, like the iPhone, that do not actually use a physical disk). It was the 1st stage within the Going Dark problem for law enforcement, though it was only a partial eclipse, since the encryption key was not user-generated but was generated from a one of a kind ID embedded inside the telephone, which meant Apple still had the capability to unlock phones. With iOS4, Apple introduced a file-encryption scheme that employed a key derived in the user’s password and also the embedded ID. Apple also added a time delay of 80 milliseconds to password guesses, which made it harder, even though not impossible, to bruteforce the user’s password. Then with iOS 8, Apple expanded the data it encrypted on the telephone - photos, messages, contacts, get in touch with history - and added even far more delay to password guesses. By the ninth failed password, the wait became an hour before one more password could be tried. If the user enabled an erase function, the decryption key would disappear altogether after 10 failed password attempts.

Despite measures like these, Cellebrite has created procedures to acquire around or disable encryption in quite a few telephone models, such as iPhones, although certainly not all of them.

“If you can do it, the competitive barrier is huge,” says Ben-Peretz. “And this can be exactly where we excel.”

In June 2015, for instance, Cellebrite created a strategy to unlock Apple devices operating iOS 8, with out the risk of erasing the encryption key. Earlier this year, a forensic specialist in Italy, stymied by an iPhone 5 operating iOS 8, reportedly paid $1,500 for a Cellebrite team to support get him into the telephone.

This doesn’t mean full-disk encryption isn’t still a challenge.

Encryption is “definitely much more complicated than it was five years ago or 10 years ago,” Tal says. “There are a lot more and more mechanisms involving encryption. … And right now our typical forensic capability will be constructed out of a number of chains of blocks, each and every of which [is] solving a distinctive technology layer or mechanism in order to provide the eventual result.”

To defeat password locks and encryption, the organization has created custom bootloaders that in some instances can interrupt the boot process from the legitimate bootloader on a phone just before the operating system loads and before the password-locking mechanism kicks in. The details of how it does this vary depending on the phone, says Tal. As well as the process for cracking an iPhone is much much more complicated than this, though he won’t elaborate.

A lawsuit Cellebrite filed last year against Oxygen Forensics touched on its option for disabling the screenlock on some Samsung Android devices. As outlined by a court document within the case, Cellebrite created special lock disabler code - commands that can run around the phones, despite their screens getting locked, and disable the locks. Cellebrite did some thing similar with LG Android phones, by identifying which files around the telephone control the screen-locking function and manipulating them to disable the lock.
Boll?, the MSAB CEO, admitted that encryption is tough for his enterprise to address, even though he told The Intercept, “we have solutions for either functioning about or trying to bypass” encryption. Asked to elaborate on those strategies, however, he couldn’t provide a clear example.

“It is not as straightforward as obtaining about encryption or not,” he wrote in an email. He noted that nowadays, the issue isn’t just the extra safety and encryption constructed in to phones themselves, but in addition the encryption in mobile apps.

“I think both Google and Apple have extra than 2 million apps on their app stores, and every app has their own database or encryption - they may be updated 10 times as frequently [as telephone operating systems],” he stated throughout an interview within the company’s Virginia workplace. “That’s a a great deal bigger challenge than distinct phones.”

Indeed, every single forensic tool can only extract data from a little percentage of apps, so they focus around the most popular ones that are likely to yield essential forensic information. The information for every app requires decoding if it is in a special format. And after information is extracted, it has to be analyzed and presented in a format consumers can understand.

This is largely what tends to make mobile forensic tools so expensive - the many variations of phones, operating systems and applications they have to address. Mobile forensic tools can cost $10,000 to $14,000 for the base tool or software program, with an additional annual subscription for upgrades - the release notes for new versions of Cellebrite’s tools and application list dozens of mobile apps and mobile handsets and operating systems that are newly supported by each and every upgrade.

Tal says the breakthroughs they achieve in cracking phones are rewarding, but his research group gets other satisfaction in the perform. “You see murderers, you see child molesters get behind bars because of information that we extracted yesterday, and it’s an incredibly immediate connection with all the purpose of what we’re doing here,” he says. “We’re not just safety researchers who operate on this forensic capability to make money for the organization; there’s a story behind this for the people today.”

Cellebrite, he insists, gives hugely skilled researchers a extra ethical and acceptable outlet for their talents than, say, promoting vulnerabilities and exploits to questionable buyers as some researchers do. He does not name names, but researchers at the Citizen Lab in Canada recently found that Cellebrite’s compatriots in the NSO Group had supplied iPhone zero-days to the United Arab Emirates government to install a spy tool on a telephone used by a local human rights activist. “[T]here are a lot of incredibly good individuals, pretty good talents in this space who don’t necessarily feel extremely comfortable operating for someone who may possibly sell their product to a foreign government that could or may perhaps not use it against journalists in their countries and oppressive regimes,” Tal says.

He says their customers are first-world Western law enforcement agencies and notes that he’s had interest from a lot researchers lately who have been expressing an interest in functioning for Cellebrite “because they know the analysis we do does not go into the ‘shady’ areas. We have a strong ethics backbone, a clear-use case for our capabilities, and dramatically less potential for abuse should ‘evil customers’ attempt to deceive us.”

This does not mean that Cellebrite is with out controversy. The company operates at the epicenter of an increasingly essential U.S. policy debate about government use of computing vulnerabilities and exploits for surveillance purposes and about how keeping those vulnerabilities secret leaves the devices of millions of folks vulnerable to intruders of all sorts. Apple still doesn’t know what iOS vulnerability the mystery party used to assist the FBI hack into the San Bernardino telephone, leaving quite a few iPhone users at risk of someone else working with the same vulnerability on their phones.

Tal says Cellebrite’s researchers have deliberated at times about disclosing vulnerabilities they found to vendors, but will not say if they’ve actually disclosed any.

“Sometimes we do want to disclose a vulnerability because we think that’s inside the best interest of our consumers and inside the best interest of maintaining some aspect of privacy and safety,” he says. “But then of course [the] forensics organization is entailed with obtaining access to information the vendor maybe did not want you to have access to. So there’s somewhat of a delicate dance about this.”

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