Cellebrite Tech Used Against Journalists in Botswana, Investigation Reveals

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Cellebrite's UFED and its digital forensics technology was used in Botswana against journalists, CPJ reveals
Cellebrite's UFED and its digital forensics technology was used in Botswana against journalists, CPJ's Africa division reveals in a new investigation Credit: Cellebrite

Authorities in Botswana are using Israeli phone-hacking technology to sweep the phones of journalists in the southern African country, an investigation by the Committee to Protect Journalists revealed Wednesday. 

According to the report by Jonathan Rozen, the CPJ’s senior Africa researcher, Botswana police are making use of Cellebrite’s flagship product the Universal Forensic Extraction Device to extract data from the phones of journalists as part of a wider crackdown on the media. 

The UFED devices enables law enforcement agencies to extract data from locked mobile phones. According to the investigation, Botswana security forces are using legally obtained warrants to sweep the phones of journalists that have written about state officials.

For example, a reporter who worked for a newspaper that wrote about the head of the country’s intelligence service had her phone confiscated and scanned, though she herself was not the author of the report or even on trial, but rather was only named in a separate case, allowing the police to obtain a search warrant for her phone. 

Haaretz has revealed in the past that Israeli cyber firms sell their wares to Botswana.

According to the CPJ the “police in Botswana use digital forensics equipment to sweep up vast quantities of journalists’ communications from seized devices, regardless of whether they are charged with a crime. 

“The extent of these searches was only revealed when police documents were submitted in court months after the fact, and it’s not clear what happened to the data. Botswana’s security forces routinely arrest journalists and take possession of their devices,” the CPJ wrote.

For example, a news editor who posted on Facebook about being violently interrogated by the police and being questioned about his sources also had his phone sweeped using Cellebrite’s hardware. 

The country is ruled by President Mokgweetsi Masisi of the Botswana Democratic Party. The BDP has ruled Botswana since independence from Britain in 1966 and the country has enjoyed stability and prosperity based on its diamond resources. It is considered a democracy, though it is plagued by corruption. 

Botswana President Mokgweetsi Masisi speaks at a session at the World Economic Forum on Africa in Cape Town, South Africa in 2019Credit: Sumaya Hisham/ REUTERS

Reporters from a local Facebook-based outlet called "News Boiler" were also targeted and two journalists from the country's Weekend Post also said they had their phones confiscated.

“If you take my phone and go and analyze it, you have my folders and everything, all my contacts,” one of the reporters told the CPJ, adding that such searches have had a stifling effect: “Sources, they no longer trust us. They no longer want to deal directly with us.”

In response to the report, a PR firm representing Cellebrite said it could not “speak to any specifics” about its clients and noted that the firm “requires that agencies and governments that use our technology uphold the standards of international human rights law. 

“Our compliance solutions enable an audit trail and can discern who, when and how data was accessed, which leads to accountability in the agencies and organizations that use our tools,” Cellebrite’s press representatives' statement said.

On Tuesday the digital rights group Access Now called to block Cellebrite from going public, urging securities regulators and shareholders to “direct Cellebrite towards transparency and robust human rights protections” as a condition for a stock market listing.

“We know the human rights abuses Cellebrite’s technology has reportedly abetted,” Access Now said in a letter co-signed with other human rights groups. “The company is also well aware of the risks, yet seems to continue to place these tools into the hands of repressive regimes.” 

The letter called on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission and NASDAQ to reject Cellebrite’s listing. It urged the shareholders of TWC Tech Holdings II, the special purpose acquisition company, or SPAC, the public shell company that Cellebrite plans to merge with, to demand that Cellebrite provide a “robust disclosure of all aspects of Cellebrite’s human rights compliance programs.”

Cellebrite, which announced in April that it was going public, works with law enforcement agencies and has a long list of clients. The company says it only sells the system to legitimate law enforcement agencies and defense forces, and has boasted that it is used to help with serious crimes like pedophilia and terror. 

But investigations led by Eitay Mack, a lawyer and human rights activist, have helped reveal that the technology has been sold to countries implicated in human rights violations and has been used to crack down on political dissent. For example, until this year, the company’s system was sold to China, which used it against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and Russia and Belarus. It has also sold its technology to Bangladesh. It has even been sold to bodies under international sanctions.

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