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I Worked at Israeli Phone Hacking Firm Cellebrite. They Lied to Us

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Cellebrite's UEFD device on display at a police show in Indonesia's East Java
Cellebrite's UEFD device on display at a police show in Indonesia's East JavaCredit:

I would like to address the issue of supervising phone hacking technology that is being exported by NSO Group and Cellebrite. As a former Cellebrite employee, I can say from personal experience that the company does nothing to prevent the abuse of its products by customers. It knowingly sells products and services to users of dubious repute, belonging to autocratic regimes.

When other staff and I sought answers from management about this, we encountered delays, obfuscations, and in the end, outright lies. We know they are lies because of inquiries conducted by human rights groups, which led Cellebrite to stop sales to Belarus and China.

It’s good that happened. Israeli arms, which are developed by people like me, former members of the defense establishment who acquired their knowledge in the army, shouldn’t fall into the hands of some of the world’s worst criminals, for use against journalists, dissidents, LGBTQ people or anyone who happens to have been born into the wrong ethnic group.

The argument that arms exports are worth billions of dollars to the State of Israel shocks me with its selfishness and cruelty. It says that in exchange for lots of money, it’s okay to lend a hand to systematic violations of human rights. Every journalist should see his or her primary task as opposing this.

Other arguments in defense of these exports are no less inane. The claim that NSO operates in Israel for Zionist reasons and could just as well move to Cyprus and no longer employ Israelis is not true. NSO is based on the skills and knowledge of Israeli workers, veterans of the intelligence community who learned the secrets of the trade in the army, the Shin Bet security service, and the Mossad. This is no trivial matter. The skills they have acquired are at the forefront of information security research and development; they cannot be obtained almost anywhere else in the world, certainly not in Cyprus or Saudi Arabia. There are many such professionals in Israel, but smaller numbers in other countries.

That leads directly to another argument, namely that governments could buy the same services from China, therefore better that we sell it to them instead. Beyond the fact that this means that Israel’s defense establishment – by virtue of the fact that it grants approvals for exports – becomes an active collaborator in other countries’ “unpleasant activities”, as TV journalist Alon Ben-David put it, supporters of current policies need to ask themselves why the Saudis turned to Israel and not to China in the first place.

The answer is that the solutions developed in Israel by defense establishment alumni are superior. If autocratic states can’t get these services from NSO, they will settle for inferior alternatives, which in the absence of competition, will also cost them more; and ultimately it will mean they are less able to spy on their citizens and repress them.

A display screen for Cellebrite at the annual European Police Congress in Berlin, Germany, February 4, 2020.Credit: Hannibal Hanschke/ REUTERS

Companies like Cellebrite and NSO produce state-of-the-art phone hacking technology of a kind that is hard to match. It’s easy to deploy them against civilians. Often, it’s also easy to identify problematic customers and dubious deals. The Defense Ministry should supervise the export of products and services developed by these companies carefully, recognizing they are tantamount to weapons. It should understand that protecting human rights is not only the moral thing to do, it is in the long-term interest of Israel and its citizens.

The writer is a former employee of Cellebrite and an information-security researcher.

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