Israeli Phone-hacking Firm Cellebrite Vowed Not to Sell to Sanctioned Countries. So What's It Doing in Belarus?

Thousands of protesters were arrested and beaten in demonstrations against President Lukashenko. Israeli human rights activists are calling on the Defense Ministry to halt export of hacking technology to Belarus

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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People put anti-Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko posters on a wall in front of the government building during opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, August 16, 2020.
People put anti-Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko posters on a wall in front of the government building during opposition rally in Minsk, Belarus, August 16, 2020. Credit: Sergei Grits / AP
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

The violent repression of protests in Belarus, including the arrest of 6,000 demonstrators, has led the European Union to impose new sanctions on senior officials in the country. It now also appears that Cellebrite, the Israeli company that supplied cellphone data extraction technology to the police in Hong Kong, where the government has cracked down on dissent, has provided its technology to the security services in Belarus.

A letter sent by a number of human rights activists to the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Defense Export Control Agency calls for the immediate halt of sales by Cellebrite of cellphone hacking technology to Belarus, a dictatorship ruled since 1994 by President Alexander Lukashenko.

Cellebrite refused to confirm that it sells equipment to Belarus, but information to that effect comes directly from security services in the former Soviet republic. There have been several official reports by investigative agencies in the country confirming that the regime has purchased the UFED forensic platform developed by Cellebrite and that Cellebrite technology has been in use in Belarus since 2016.

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It is not clear that Cellebrite is subject to any Israeli oversight of its export activities. The Economy Ministry has said it is within the Defense Ministry’s purview. In response to an inquiry from human rights lawyer Etay Mack regarding Hong Kong, the Economy Ministry said it is not responsible for oversight of Cellebrite and has not granted the company an export license, explaining that it falls within the Defense Ministry’s jurisdiction.

Cellebrite law enforcement promotional video

“According to your letter, the goods are intended to a final user which is part of a police or security force. The responsibility for monitoring such exports lies with the Defense Ministry. This ministry [the Economy Ministry] will not comment on the matter since it is not within our jurisdiction,” the letter to Mack stated.

The Defense Export Control Agency continues to refuse to divulge information about companies under its supervision, meaning that it is unclear whether Cellebrite’s exports are under oversight and if so, by whom.

“The Defense Ministry does not provide details on defense export policy, including information regarding specific export licenses. This is due to security, diplomatic and strategic considerations”, that ministry said.

Human rights activists are now calling on the Defense Ministry to monitor Cellebrite’s sales practices and to stop its export of hacking technology to the Lukashenko regime in Belarus, a country that Mack noted has been widely condemned for violations of basic human rights.

“[Its] citizens are under constant intrusive surveillance by the state, in both public and private spaces. Political activists, journalists, bloggers, academics who are critical [of the regime], artists, actors and minorities are harassed and threatened and arrested and tortured by security forces that have remained from the Soviet period,” Mack wrote, adding in Belarus, the only country in Europe that still has capital punishment, opposition figures simply disappear from time to time.

The regime’s brutality has made headlines around the world over the past two weeks after Lukashenko was reelected in an election that critics have alleged was rigged. Official results gave Lukashenko 80 percent of the vote, while opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya received 10 percent. Tikhanovskaya placed herself on the ballot after her husband, anti-corruption activist Syarhei Tsikhanousky, who has been arrested for his activities, was disqualified from running.

Police in Minsk, the Belarus capital
Police in Minsk, the Belarus capital, following the election there on Aug. 9, 2020.Credit: AFP

Tsikhanouskaya herself fled the country over concern for her family’s safety, after some of her supporters were arrested by Lukashenko’s security forces. They weren’t the only ones. According to authorities, 6,000 people were arrested in the first four days of the protests. According to foreign media reports, 2,000 were then released in an effort to calm things down. Many, however, described being held in harsh conditions in overcrowded cells with little food and being beaten.

At least one protester died in detention and another was reportedly shot dead by the police, who claimed that he had threatened them with a Molotov cocktail and died when it exploded in his hand. Activists posted videos clips from the incident that showed no indication of an explosion.

On Monday, Lukashenko said no new election would be held in Belarus “until they kill me.”

Reacting to the allegations in the letter to the Israeli Defense Export Agency, Cellebrite issued a response on Sunday that was identical to its response regarding its activities in Hong Kong.

“In accordance with company procedures and policy, we do not respond to claims about specific customers or about the use of our technology. We apply meticulous internal standards which dictate the way our technology is used. We do not sell it to countries that are on the blacklist of the Financial Action Task Force,” a reference to the agency set up by the G-7 group of leading economies, “or that are under sanctions from the U.S. administration, the Israeli government or the international community. Furthermore, Cellebrite does not deal with surveillance and does not operate in that field,” the company said.

Unlike Hong Kong, however, Belarus is subject to sanctions instituted by the European Union in 2004 that were expanded in 2011 after claims of election fraud in the country. An embargo on the export to Belarus of defense-related products was also put in place at the time, which includes equipment that could be used for domestic oppression. In a separate move, in 2012, Britain imposed its own export limitations.

In its response, Cellebrite stated that it does not deal with “surveillance activity,” which is technically correct. Its technology is geared for forensic work, while its clients – security services or the police – are the ones in possession of the cellphones on which the data extraction technology is used.

In situations such as those in Hong Kong or Belarus, surveillance is not necessarily relevant to the way this technology is used. “The Defense Export Control Agency and its head should initiate enforcement, effectively and actively, against any citizen or corporation suspected of operating without appropriate licensing. That is why this agency was established,” Mack wrote.

“Under these circumstances, it’s clear that in the specific context of Belarus, Cellebrite’s technology has become dual-use as defined in the law regulating such control. It can be used to attack and incriminate demonstrators and pro-democracy activists there”, he added.

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