Israeli Firm Cellebrite Sold Phone-hacking Tools to Uganda's Brutal Dictatorship

Ruling Uganda since 1986, Museveni's regime is responsible for kidnapping, torturing and murdering rights activists, opposition figures and LGBTQ people. Cellebrite: Strict oversight ensures proper use of our technology

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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A Cellebrite cellphone hacking device on exhibition in Beijing
A Cellebrite cellphone hacking device on exhibition in BeijingCredit: Reuters
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

>> UPDATE: After Haaretz report, Uganda confirms buying Israeli Cellebrite’s phone-hacking tech

Israeli cyber company Cellebrite sold technology for hacking into cellphones to the Uganda Police Force, despite reports revealing extensive human right violations by the police. Cellebrite, which specializes in developing tools for digital forensic investigations, has not denied the sale but claims it is scrupulous about legal and ethical use of its products.

Cellebrite’s flagship product is a technology called UFED, which enables enforcement authorities to hack into password-protected cell phones and download the information stored on them. In a letter sent by Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack to Israel's Defense Ministry and Cellebrite, a number of human rights activists call for cessation of sales of the technology and support services to the repressive regime headed by President Yoweri Museveni for the last 35 years.

Cellebrite, which is headed by CEO Yossi Carmil, claims its tools are sold only to police and security organizations for the purpose of fighting serious crime and terrorism. As has been reported in Haaretz, however, its customers have included repressive, sanctioned regimes, among them Belarus, China and Hong Kong, Venezuela, Indonesia, Russia, the Philippines and the Rapid Action Battalion, the notorious RAB death squad in Bangladesh. According to open-source information on the internet and investigative reports by Eitay Mack, the tools have made their way into the hands of organizations repressing human rights activists, minorities and the LGBTQ community. Mack also lists murders, abductions and torture of the same groups by the police in his letter.

In one investigation, Mack found that the Uganda Police Force has used the system for hacking into mobile phones since 2017, and though the use of Cellebrite in Uganda had been secret until now, “a local company in Uganda made public that it supplies to the police there the UFED system capable of hacking through protection of mobile devices, gathering information from them and restoring information that has been deleted,” Mack wrote in his letter to the ministry.

On the website of Preg-Tech Communications Ltd., a representative and supplier of Cellebrite and other companies in East Africa, Under the heading “June 2017 Provision and Installation of Digital Forensics Systems and Software Updates,” the company detailed the deal to install the Cellebrite hacking tools, software packages and servers for the Uganda Police Force. The items indicate that possibly the use had begun earlier, as there is also a list of upgrades of old tools. The document is no longer available on the company’s website, but can be viewed using the Internet Archive.

The regional supplier of Cellebrite's website reveals the sale of UFED systems to the Ugandan police.

The local supplier also revealed that the Uganda Police Force uses UFED-Cloud Analyzer, enabling extraction of a detainee’s data from online storage services like Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive and Apple’s iCloud. Though Cellebrite publications explain that remote access is possible only if the suspect provides the password, in actuality the user of the system is able to extract the data from all the cloud services installed on the hacked phone.

In April of last year, Cellebrite also held a digital forensic investigation workshop for the Uganda Wildlife Authority, a government agency. The workshop included a Cellebrite Certified Operator Course for extracting data from cellphones “in a forensically sound manner using UFED.”

Israel and Uganda: “A true friendship”

The sale of Cellebrite technologies to Uganda was not born in a vacuum. Israeli security exports to the country have been underway for decades. Before Museveni rose to power, Israel was already selling arms to General Tito Okello’s military junta, for use against Museveni’s forces that tried to topple it. After Museveni’s rise to power, relations warmed anew, along with the military exports. Inter alia, Israel Military Industries (IMI) sold Uganda Tavor and Galil ACE rifles for use by the SFC-Special Forces Command, the private security organization under Museveni’s direct command, which fires live ammunition during demonstrations against the president and beats up opposition activists.

In 2019, the head of the SIBAT foreign defense assistance and defense export directorate at the Defense Ministry at the time, Brig. Gen. (res.) Michel Ben-Baruch, visited Uganda and met with the defense minister there. A year later, former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited the country, met with Museveni and declared that the relations between the two countries testify to “a true friendship.” Netanyahu spoke about the extensive cooperation in “agriculture, education and innovation,” only mentioning cyber in the area of security.

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (R) stand for their national anthems after arriving at the Entebbe airport in Uganda, 2016.Credit: Reuters

Until now, not much information has been published about cyber sales to Uganda, but the country is the main suspect in one of the most serious affairs concerning the cyber-attack company NSO. Last year, the mobile phones of at least nine employees of the U.S. State Department either serving in Uganda or focused on matters concerning the East African country were hacked by means of the Israeli company’s Pegasus spyware.

Unrestrained junta

“The heart of the problem is that we have a military junta pretending to be a government and becoming more and more unrestrained,” says Andrew Karamagi, a lawyer and human rights activist in Uganda.

In January 2021, Museveni was re-elected for his sixth consecutive term in office. The election campaign period was characterized by violent repression of his opponents; dozens of demonstrators were killed within a few months. Museveni has controlled the country since 1986 by means of clientelist relationships with cronies whilst deploying the security forces to intimidate his opponents and silence the media.

“There is no humane way to control people against their will, especially when you have been doing this for close to four decades," according to Karamagi. "The alarming situation of civil right in Uganda is a function of the interests of the ruling family and its followers.” Karamagi added that the international community – the United States, China and Russia among other countries – also bears responsibility for the situation in the country.

“It appears that the waterline was crossed in the 2016 election, when in the wake of their counterfeiting and the extensive repression Museveni exerted, the international community’s tolerance towards him began to fade – which encouraged the opposition in Uganda to increase its activity to depose him,” wrote Mack in his letter. “On Election Day the government blocked access to the social networks ... In areas of clear support for the opposition, the government did not provide any ballot slips; about 150,000 security personnel were deployed near the polling places ... They intimidated voters and created the impression that they would take vengeance on voters for the opposition ... On Election Day, President Museveni arrested one of the prominent opposition leaders.”

According to a report from Makerere University in Uganda, 133 people were executed without trial in the years between 2016 and 2019. “Extensive and systematic use was made of torture, including of children, throughout the whole country by all of the security forces.” In 2021, the U.S. published a report highly critical of the human rights situation in Uganda and imposed sanctions on dozens of individuals connected to the regime. According to the report, the regime arrested, interrogated and attacked journalists who expressed criticism of the government and ruled they had endangered the security of the state. The report states: "Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) activists reported that police officers and medical personnel carried out forced anal examinations on members of the LGBTQI+ community whom they arrested at what was alleged to be a same-sex engagement ceremony."

A Human Rights Watch report from March of this year mentioned more than 400 cases of “snatching,” arbitrary arrests, disappearances and torture at the hands of the Uganda Police Force, the army, military intelligence and the internal security organization. Most of the detainees who were interviewed by the NGO noted that their cellphones were confiscated when they were arrested.

On December 22, 2020, armed police abducted four lawyers and an opposition activist who had met to share information about incidents in which demonstrators had been killed a month earlier. When asked by police to reveal the passcodes to their phones, they refused, despite being beaten. Cellebrite’s technology comes in here, enabling authorities to hack locked phones.

“The meaning of the hacking of cellular phones in Uganda could be abduction, extortion, torture, execution without trial, disappearing and denial of liberty without a fair legal proceeding, for citizens who have cellphones, and also for their friends and relatives,” Mack wrote.

Cellebrite has responded that the company “is committed to its mission of creating a safer world through providing solutions to law enforcement organizations while ensuring legal and ethical use of its products... we have developed strict means of oversight that will ensure proper use of our technology in the context of investigations carried out under the law.”

The Defense Ministry maintained its usual position, responding that “As a rule, the Defense Ministry does not give information about security export policy. This, from security, diplomatic and strategic considerations.”

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