Israeli Phone-hacking Firm Cellebrite Halts Sales to Russia, Belarus in Wake of Haaretz Report

Oded Yaron
Rafa Goichman
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Lyubov Sobol in court, earlier this month.
Lyubov Sobol in court, earlier this month.Credit: EVGENIA NOVOZHENINA/Reuters
Oded Yaron
Rafa Goichman

Cellebrite, the Israeli digital intelligence company, announced Thursday that it will no longer sell its technology to Russia and Belarus after it was used to hack opposition forces and minorities in the countries.

In an appeal against Israel's Defense Export Control Agency, Defense Ministry, and Cellebrite, Eitay Mack, a lawyer and human rights activist, together with 80 human rights activists revealed documents that link Cellebrite’s technology with the persecution of political actors as well as minority groups in Russia.

Among them Lyubov Sobol, a lawyer for the Anti-Corruption Foundation headed by Alexei Navalny, was mentioned.

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After the documents were revealed, Cellebrite called a halt on exports of its technology to Belarus and Russia. In the past, the company denied the sale of technology to the dictatorship, but investigative agencies reported that the Lukashenko administration has purchased and used Cellebrite's hacking technology since 2016.

In response to the exposed documents and Haaretz's inquiry, Yossi Carmil, Cellebrite's CEO, announced a revision of company policies. "As part of our standard business operations, we regularly review and update our compliance policies to ensure we operate according to accepted international rules and regulations," he said in a statement Thursday.

"Cellebrite empowers law enforcement agencies and enterprises to make our communities safer by providing solutions that help lawfully acquire digital evidence in criminal investigations and civil proceedings," he added.

Six months ago, Mack uncovered that Cellebrite’s technology is used to target the LGBTQ community, opposition forces and minorities in Russia by its Investigative Committee. Both the European Union and the U.S. imposed sanctions on the agency, headed by Alexander Bastrykin, a close associate of Putin.

The arrest of Sobol and two other activists was an effort to use Cellebrite's hacking tools to break into their phones and obtain incriminating data, Mack explained in his appeal.

“Her incrimination may end her political career and harm her ability to give a voice to Russian citizens that oppose Putin’s corrupt dictatorship,” Mack added.

The findings about the Sobol case were published by the Russian media outlet Media Zona. It details how Sobol was arrested and the role Cellebrite's technology plays in the charges against her and the other activists. 

Sobol has since been released, rearrested and released once more. She is currently under house arrest for breaking coronavirus restrictions and participating in protests. Moreover, the court in Russia refused to lift restrictions on Sobol and labelled her a “foreign agent” this week.

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