The lack of manufacturing standards in the Chinese cell phone industry makes analysis of these devices challenging.
A new challenge to digital forensics investigators is emerging from China, and it is coming to a mobile device near you. The threat is Chinese-made, grey-market cell phones known as “white-box,” “clone-phones,” or “Shanzhai” (Chinese for pirated goods), and they are taking the world by storm. These devices are sleek, stylish, and surprisingly advanced. Unfortunately, they are built with a lack of adherence to industry standards, making them difficult to analyze.
About 800 million cell phones were produced in China in 2011, up nearly 50% from 2010. Approximately half of those devices were exported around the globe, making up 30% of the cell phone market worldwide. That share is expected to grow to 50% in the next few years.
These phones are usually built with multiple SIM card ports and multiple IMEI Numbers, allowing them to operate across multiple networks. That allows these devices to be quickly internationalized, increasing their popularity throughout Asia, Africa, South America, and beyond.
With so many of these devices in existence, an understanding of the technology behind them and knowledge of new methods of analysis is becoming critical for any investigator.
White-box phones started to appear around the year 2000 as a direct result of China’s gargantuan manufacturing capacity and a major hardware innovation. The southern Chinese city of Shenzhen had already been established as the epicenter of Chinese cell phone manufacturing. At the same time, a Taiwanese integrated circuit (IC) manufacturer, MediaTek, began offering advanced hardware packages called “systems on a chip” (SoC) for wireless communication devices. The combination of affordable technology and production capacity opened the door for small, entrepreneurial teams with only a handful of people to design and contract manufacture cell phones quickly and affordably, with some ultra-low cost devices being sold for as little as $30.
While white-box phones were initially cheap and simple, hundreds of small companies known as independent design houses (IDH) emerged in Shenzhen, as well as other industrial cities, to capitalize on the trend. These IDH continue to develop devices with increasingly sophisticated features, some of which are real and innovative along with others that are completely made-up or non-functioning. Devices currently on the market support advanced operating systems, like Android, and some are nearly identical to popular handsets like the iPhone 4—many even use components from the same sub-suppliers as the legitimate manufacturer.