Human Rights Activists Urge Israel to Stop Spy Tool Exports to Hong Kong Police

Petitioners say Israel's Cellebrite phone-cracking product is a 'dual-use' technology attacking pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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Riot police stand guard after pushing back protesters demonstrating against the new security law, July 1, 2020,
Riot police stand guard after pushing back protesters demonstrating against the new security law, July 1, 2020.Credit: Vincent Yu,AP
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

Human rights activists in Israel and Hong Kong called on Cellebrite to stop its cooperation with the Hong Kong police over use of its technology against Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters.

After a global petition was circulated, Israeli activists wrote to the ministries of defense and finance to intervene in exports of Cellebrite's products to Hong King – mainly a device that police officers use to unlock and extract data from confiscated phones of protesters.

"Israeli forensics company Cellebrite has a long history helping Hong Kong police forces to crack into activists’ mobile devices," wrote activist Nathan Law, claiming Cellebrite's hardware cracked the phone of prominent activists Joshua Wong earlier this year, along with the phones of nearly 4,000 detainees last year.

"For years, Cellebrite's system was used by Hong Kong forces in a legitimate way, in accordance with court orders and judicial oversight," but since Beijing imposed sweeping national security laws in June, police can search devices without warrant, explained attorney Itai Mack in a letter to Cellebrite and Israeli regulatory bodies.

The new security law undermines Hong Kong's autonomy and defines political protest as subversive and the pro-democracy protests as terrorism. It also allows for prosecution of journalists, lawyers and doctors for abating terrorism and criminalizes transfer of information to foreign bodies – including the media, human rights organizations and the United Nations. In May, U.S. Secretary of State declared Hong Kong is no longer considered autonomous form China and does not warrant special treatment under U.S. laws as it did when it was under British rule until 1997.

Mack said the drastic legal and political changes in Hong Kong require Israel to regulate Cellebrite's products as a dual-use technology, because it has both dual civilian and military applications. "Cellebrite's technology became in this specific context a dual-use security product, as defined by regulatory laws. It is being used to terrorize the city's residents and attack and incriminate protesters and democracy activists. Therefore its continued export requires a license for military export by the Defense Export Controls Act," wrote Mack, adding that such an export cannot be approved considering the severity of the situation in Hong Kong.

One of the models in Cellebrite’s Universal Forensic Extraction Device product line.Credit: Courtesy

Cellebrite has captured a major slice of the mobile forensics market, providing police forces, government agencies and private companies across the world with hardware and software that enable investigators to extract information from most handheld devices, even if the data has been encrypted, deleted or uploaded to the cloud

Cellebrite declined comment on use of its product by the Hong Kong police, but said it does not sell its technology to countries black-listed by the Financial Action Task Force or states that are under sanctions by the United States.

Israel's Ministry of Defense declined to comment on this report.

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