Cellebrite is a leading Israeli firm with subsidiaries in Germany and the United States and is owned by the Japanese company Sun Corporation. In the last five years, Cellebrite’s growth has been remarkable, making its way into the development and sale of forensic software and hardware for mobile devices worldwide, including the famous “Universal Forensic Extraction Device” (UFED).
The UFED was designed so that potential investigators can get information from a good portion of the world’s portable devices whether they are wiped, encrypted, destroyed or hidden in cloud storage.
However, not everything is rosy for Cellebrite. Controversy also follows this company because of its links with authoritarian regimes that use the technology designed by the firm to prosecute and harass dissidents, according to several newspaper reports in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.
The biggest scandals surrounding Cellebrite concern the sale of technology to the regimes of Belarus and China. There were also allegations, albeit to a lesser extent, that the Israeli company sold its devices to Russia, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia.
The most recent case — and which months ago caused a lot of talk in Israel and recently began to spread in Venezuela — was related to Venezuela, that is, to the Chavista regime.
According to Haaretz journalist Oded Yaron, “The Israeli firm Cellebrite sold its phone-hacking technology to Nicolás Maduro’s regime in Venezuela, despite American sanctions which ban exports to the country. Meanwhile, Cellebrite vehemently denies any bid to sell its new system, capable of allowing regimes to break into mobile phones, to the South American nation.”
The report indicated, among other things, that the Cellebrite device (which the Maduro regime pretended to buy) “was to be used by the CICPC unit, also known as the Bureau for Scientific, Criminal and Forensic Investigations.”
The information highlights that the denounces were linked to the human rights lawyer, Eitay Mack, who made a request to the Defense Export Control Agency, which is in charge of supervising exports as a branch of the Ministry of Defense in Israel, to take a closer look at the activities of the Israeli company due to its links with regimes around the world.
According to the article, the lawyer demanded that the Export Control Agency “also oversee Cellebrite and its activities, in part due to the Maduro regime’s plans to buy the advanced mobile forensics system – UFED Touch 2..”
“Cellebrite, the leader in digital forensic extraction, decoding and analysis solutions, today unveiled UFED Touch2, the latest addition to the company’s industry-leading UFED Series family of mobile forensic solutions. With enhanced speed, usability, and portability, UFED Touch2 is a comprehensive mobile forensic solution that allows law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies to collect evidentiary data in a forensically sound manner. The Touch2 can collect mobile device content up to three times faster than the UFED Touch, enabling investigators and examiners to accelerate investigations.”
Many media outlets have already floated stories about the devices developed by Cellebrite. For example, according to the newspaper El País, one of the Israeli firm’s equipment was the one that managed to “access the iPhone of the San Bernardino terrorist after committing an attack in December 2015 in that U.S. locality. The FBI paid Cellebrite close to $1 million for that work.”
On another occasion, the Criminalistics Service of the Civil Guard used one of Cellebrite’s devices to recover information from the iPhone 6 of young Diana Quer, who had disappeared in August 2016 in La Coruña, Spain. The Spanish newspaper tells that, “in this case, there is the circumstance that the phone had bumps and was located after remaining nearly two months in the water. Once again, Cellebrite worked a miracle and managed to recover a lot of information.”
The complaints against the CICPC for its human rights abuses are diverse. In fact, in 2019 the NGO Provea determined that this institution was the one that tortured the most in all of Venezuela, surpassing even the army, the Bolivarian National Police (PNB in Spanish), and the General Directorate of Military Counterintelligence (DGCIM in Spanish).
Human rights violations in Venezuela not only date back to denunciations by national NGOs such as Provea, but also other international organizations, such as the United Nations (UN), carried out diplomatic missions where they determined that the authorities and law enforcement agencies of the Chavista regime carried out serious human rights violations. And the CICPC was one of the organizations pointed out.
“The Mission investigated sixteen cases of police, military or joint operations that ended with 53 extrajudicial executions and also investigated 2,552 incidents in which more than 5,000 deaths were caused by the security forces,” reads a summary of one of the UN diplomatic missions in Venezuela dated September 16, 2020. “The report blames two security forces – the CICPC and the Special Action Forces (FAES) of the Bolivarian National Police (PNB) – for 59% of the deaths perpetrated in the period analyzed and says they also committed the documented extrajudicial executions.”
On this controversy, Cellebrite recently denied working with the Chavista regime in Venezuela, although the company and the socialist regime do have a history of collaborating.
“Cellebrite hasn’t worked with defense or police clients in Venezuela for a number of years, and will not change its policy regarding the country as long as the current regime is holding on to power,” the firm said referring to the controversy.
However, “Maduro’s regime announced its plans to purchase the system last year, and has since repeated the claims in a number of official statements and publications,” Haaretz reported.
While it is undeniable that devices developed by the Israeli company have helped security forces around the world in thousands of cases, it is also troubling that the company has ties to totalitarian regimes that persecute their citizens.
According to Haaretz, Cellebrite has “a relatively positive profile in terms of human rights, casting itself as a company committed to high ethical standards despite reports of problematic uses of its technology..”
However, “Its positive image on human rights has started to show crack recently, with reports of its involvement in Hong Kong and Belarus.,” Haaretz noted. For example, with regard to Hong Kong, the special administration whose autonomy the Chinese regime wants to violate, various human rights groups criticized the Israeli company for selling its technology to the Chinese Communist Party (CPP) controlled authorities.
Regarding the Alexander Lukashenko regime, Haaretz wrote that “Claims it sold its cellphone hacking technology to Belarus – a dictatorship ruled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko – have highlighted the firm’s involvement with repressive regimes and flies in the face of the company’s claims that it does not do business with nations facing sanctions.”
For example, this is part of the company’s response regarding its alleged involvement in Hong Kong and Belarus: “We do not sell our technology to countries on the FATF (Financial Action Task Force) blacklist or subject to American sanctions, or those by the Israeli government or international community.”
With the Venezuelan case, the situation goes even further. Cellebrite sold older versions of the UFED to the Maduro regime despite the fact that the first U.S. sanctions on the Chavista tyranny began as early as 2006. With the Trump administration, the country imposed even stronger sanctions on the Venezuelan government as the Chavista project became an even more destructive model.
According to Yaron’s report, ” CICPC already has what appears to be the UFED Touch Ultimate version, which, according to the sales brochure, was developed in 2013. In other words, the system was sold to the present regime or, at the earliest, to that of his predecessor, Hugo Chavez, who died in March 2013.” The information gathered indicates that the CICPC continued using this technology for hacking activities in subsequent years.
The situation becomes even more worrisome when, according to the agreements between Cellebrite and third countries, the Israeli firm reserves the right to deactivate its devices if they are used by governments for purposes that violate the law. Reports suggest that the company has not deactivated devices used in Hong Kong, Belarus or Venezuela, even though they have the ability to do so remotely.
What is unclear according to the Haaretz report is whether the company is violating sanctions by working with these countries or, alternatively, by letting them continue to use the devices.
The Israeli firm works closely with the FBI and the Secret Service, bearing in mind that several of the countries that operated with Cellebrite are sanctioned by the United States, due to the authoritarian characteristics of their regimes.