Israeli Phone-hacking Firm Cellebrite Halts Hong Kong Deal With China

After string of reports reveal sales of phone spy-tech to repressive regimes from Beijing to Belarus, Cellebrite says will stop providing services to China and Hong Kong police

Oded Yaron
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A post by pro-democracy activist Nathan Law against Cellebrite's sales to Hong Kong police
A post by pro-democracy activist Nathan Law against Cellebrite's sales to Hong Kong police
Oded Yaron

The Israeli firm Cellebrite announced Wednesday that it would stop sales of its phone hacking services to Hong Kong and China, due to what the firm said were regulatory changes in the U.S.

The announcement comes after a string of reports into the investigations led by Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack, who revealed that the firm’s technology was being used by China as well as by other repressive regimes. 

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. The company has faced allegations by human rights activists that it sells its equipment to both the Chinese regime in its bid to crack down on pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, and to the government in protest-torn Belarus – claims the firm has either denied or refused to confirm or respond to.

Haaretz has also reported on dealings with Venezuela and Saudi Arabia

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

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Cellebrite’s flagship line of products is the UFED, a system which allows authorities to unlock and access the data of any phone in their possession.

In Hong Kong, the company provided local police the technology which was used to break into the smartphones of thousands of pro-democracy and human rights activists who were arrested during demonstrations. In response, local activists, among them Joshua Wong (whose own phone was hacked and its content analyzed through the UFED system), launched a campaign calling for a halt in sales of Cellebrite’s technology to Hong Kong authorities. 

In its announcement, the company said that, "Cellebrite empowers law enforcement agencies and enterprises to make our communities safer by providing solutions that help lawfully acquire digital evidence in criminal investigations and civil proceedings." 

"As part of our standard business operations, we regularly review and update our compliance policies to ensure we operate according to accepted international rules and regulations," Cellebrite’s CEO Yossi Carmil said in the statement. 

In its statement, the company did not say which regulatory changes prompted the move, but it is likely a reference to the change in Hong Kong’s status in wake of the new Chinese security law. That law undermines Hong Kong’s political autonomy, defines protest as subversive and deems pro-democracy protests specfically as a form of 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, the U.S. Secretary of State declared that Hong Kong is no longer considered autonomous from China and does not warrant special treatment under U.S. laws as it did when it was under British rule until 1997.

Cellebrite CEO Yossi Carmil: 'I sleep well at night, because I know who I work for'
Cellebrite CEO Yossi Carmil: 'I sleep well at night, because I know who I work for'Credit: Eyal Toueg

It is worth noting that though the law passed at the end of June, Mack discovered that Cellebrite’s dealings with China continued until August, according to a contract signed with a local Chinese force in the province of Jiangsu. According to official documents on the tender, the deal was only for one single system, but provided the police with three years of technical support. 

Good cop, bad cop

Haaretz has learned that prior to the announcement, workers at the company received an email from the CEO. In the letter, Carmil directly addressed the recent reports revealing sales to Belarus and Hong Kong. His letter did not address claims that sales were also made to mainland China, a Russian investigation body that reports directly to Putin, or police units in Venezuela.   

"I want to address recent circumstances that have occurred and have received media coverage,” Carmil wrote to workers. “While rare, circumstances such as those the press referenced in Hong Kong and Belarus may occur where our technology is lawfully sold to agencies in a country that later experiences social or political changes. 

“It is important to note that we do not work with regimes and we work with thousands of stand-alone police units and agencies. We work with thousands of customers around the world providing the tools and technology to help them build a safer world.”

However, he noted that, “When situations such as Hong Kong and Belarus do occur, we consult with government bodies on export sensitivities. In both of these instances, we are actively monitoring them and conducting the necessary due diligence. 

Carmil also said in his letter that the company examines each case independently and added “ that we have strong licensing policies in place that govern how our technology may be utilized by our customers. When there is a misuse of our products and technology, we immediately access the situation, and take any actions necessary.”

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