Built on 'Looney Tunes' Pinball, Sun Corp Is Making Bank Hacking Apple for the FBI

The weird history of the mobile forensic company Cellebrite's bizarre corporate overlords.


Sun Corporation, the company currently getting rich off public speculation that it can help the FBI break into the notorious San Bernardino iPhone was not always such a fierce competitor. While it’s seen the value of its stock rise 36 percent since Reuters reported that the FBI had enlisted its subsidiary, an Israeli-firm called Cellebrite, to unlock the iPhone, its story begins in the early ‘70s and involve pachinko.

While it later developed video games — and they have gotten weird, look to the trailer for mobile game Alice in Distortion for an example of a teenage girl stroking a disembodied head — Sun Corps made its first couple billion selling digital pachinko machines, a kind of Japanese pinball. It’s massively popular in Japan because of its gambling aspect.

Maybe think of Sun Corps, known also as Sunsoft, as an aloof slightly older sibling of Apple. It was there first, tried a bunch of the same strategies over the years, but always injected just a little too much personality into its offerings to ever reach the kind of global market Apple has captured. After Sun Corps developed its Ready1 personal computer in December 1978 to little acclaim and even less revenue, the company turned inwards, spending the next couple decades producing brooding and bizarre video games. Its only real success came from the bastion of the weird, the home of generations of misfits: the arcade.

Sun Corps rested on its laurels throughout the 1990s and well into the early millennium. Like a bloated startup millionaire, the company encountered bursts of productivity over the years, releasing a few fighting games and dabbling in the Nintendo Wii, but on the whole did very little, and did even that superficially. So it’s not entirely clear how or why a team of Israeli hackers joined up with the slagging Sun Corps in 2007.

Cellebrite was founded in 1999 with the goal of improving data transfer between early devices, a service that has since evolved into an unusual expertise in data extraction, particularly in the mobile sphere. Today, its arsenal of hacks and data extraction techniques have empowered militaries and law enforcement agencies around the world deal with new, sophisticated threats.

The marriage of Sun Corps and Cellebrite may appear to be one of convenience and coincidence, but there may be something more to it. Both companies have long harbored global ambitions but failed to make a major dent in the digital market. Despite their common origins, Apple’s market capitalization of $586 billion, the biggest on the planet, dwarfs Sun Corps’ meager $23 billion.

On the face of it, Sun Corps would appear little more than an early adopter that never caught on, that for years has had to struggle through family gatherings disingenuously proud of its little sibling for all their success. No, Sun Corps believes what separated them from Apple’s success was a bit of luck and an ocean of distance. Now that it has Cellebrite, it wants to show Apple’s technology may be shiny, but on the inside, where it counts, it’s not really anything special.

Maybe something snapped in Sun Corps after Apple’s iPhones began appearing on the streets of Japan. At the same time, it had been decades since its last hit, and it was pretty much totally reliant on Looney Tunes to reach annual funding goals. The opportunity to pick up a sexy, high-tech cybersecurity firm promising unlimited access to the world’s most-used tech would have appeared too fortuitous to ignore.

Now, just a little less than a decade later, Sunsoft has the opportunity to unmask Apple’s security as utterly conventional. Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has staked a lot on arguing that the new iPhones are virtually unhackable and that building a “backdoor” would ruin all their good work. So how will it play when a common company breaks right through its vaunted encryption?

It’s possible that this saga is not quite as Freudian as we’re making it seem. But there’s no doubt that corporate animosity can rival the animosity felt between two sports teams or even two siblings. Sun Corps has long played the quiet and respectful understudy to Apple, but now, for perhaps the first time in three decades, they face each other as equals.

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