Israeli human rights attorney, Eitay Mack, has revealed that the major Israeli cyber-hacking firm, Cellebrite, sells its products to some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Among them are Belarus and Venezuela. The latter has been placed under U.S. sanctions since 2006. The Venezuelan intelligence services have purchased Cellebrite hacking tools at least as far back as 2013, permitting them to break the encryption safeguards for cell phones used by the political opposition and human rights activists. As a corollary, in the period between 2015-2017, the Venezuelan authorities executed 8,000 people via extrajudicial killings. Over one-third were killed by the spy agency which purchased the Israeli company’s devices. Cellebrite was an accessory to many of these deaths just as NSO Group was an accessory to the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.
In recent months, Belarusians have arisen in protest against their dictator, Alexsander Lukashenko, threatening his 25 years of ironclad rule. The police arrested and tortured hundreds in the past few weeks. And in the past week, security personnel kidnapped opposition leaders and expelled them forcibly from the country. The leader of the protests was similarly kidnapped and told if she refused to leave they would kill her. The U.S. government and EU have imposed sanctions on a number of Belarus officials including Lukashenko.
Lukashenko’s secret police use Cellebrite gear to track the location, and intercept the communications of the country’s future democratic leaders (if/when Lukashenko were to be overthrown). The company is also defying international sanctions imposed on the very thugs with whom it does business.
When the company upgrades its product line, old equipment is sold by clients on the secondary market. Cellebrite models have been sold on eBay for as little as $100 (new devices run around $6,000). Some sellers don’t even wipe their equipment clean of their data, so victims’ privacy is violated not once but twice.
Cellebrite also sells to the Chinese security apparatus in Hong Kong, which has been beset by massive pro-democracy protests. They have demanded that China honor its commitments to preserve Hong Kong autonomy. China’s leaders have implemented a draconian security law which threatens to imprison the leaders of these protests and push the entire movement underground. Cellebrite’s equipment permits the police to break encryption on virtually all of the communication devices the democracy crusaders are using to coordinate their activities. It also enables police to track the victims’ location in order to arrest them or determine who they meet with.
Bahrain is another happy Cellebrite customer. It uses the company’s wares to ferret out ‘dangerous’ citizens seeking democratic rights for the country’s Shia majority, which has been dominated and oppressed by the minority Sunni elite for centuries. Earlier this week, Bahrain became the latest Sunni dictatorship to normalize relations with Israel. That country’s provision of surveillance gear used to prop up the Bahraini monarchy certainly didn’t hurt the campaign to recruit it to the Coalition of the Willing (Arab Normalizers).
Turkey’s authoritarian Islamist leader, Recip Tayyip Erdogan, is another Cellebrite customer. Undoubtedly, he has many political enemies both real and imagined seeking his overthrow. He’s thrown thousands of them into prisons, no doubt with the aid of the company’s technology.
Cellebrite appears far more interested in the bottom line than ethics (and why should it, since there are no international regulations governing cyber-hacking?) as this BBC interview confirms. Here a company vice-president is at a loss for words when asked if there were any clients he would not sell to:
Cellan-Jones: What about repressive regimes that are intent on spying on their citizens in ways that many people would find offensive? Would you sell to them?
Ben-Moshe: I don’t know. … I don’t know the answer to that and I’m no position to comment on that in this point in time.
Another company executive told The Intercept (with a straight face):
Sharah Tal, Cellebrite’s director of research, [said] that the company has “a strong ethics backbone, a clear-use case for our capabilities, and dramatically less potential for abuse…
That settles it, as far as I’m concerned.
Cellebrite vehemently denies that it has sold its products to Venezuela, despite the fact that the intelligence services proudly feature them in public security fairs held there. Another problematic aspect of the company’s business activity is that it appears that no Israeli government agency oversees its exports, as is supposed to happen with all security-related exports. Mack asked the defense ministry whether Cellebrite was required to receive authorization to sell its products abroad. The ministry refused to comment.
But it did say that the ministry requires that those it oversees honor sanctions provisions approved by “international bodies.” It’s not clear whether this language includes sanctions imposed by the U.S. or not. But in a separate statement, it explicitly acknowledged it does so.
There are many ways in which Israeli weapons and cyber-security companies sell their controversial wares abroad without being linked directly to them. In some cases, they create foreign subsidiaries which are not directly tied to the Israeli parent. In other cases, they sell under license to other companies or to front companies created solely to obscure the sale. But the key factor here is that dangerous Israeli cyber-war tools end up in the hands of dictators, who use them to target and even kill those advocating democracy for their countries.
As I’ve written here regularly in the past, Israel is the vanguard of the national security state, exporting its methods of social control throughout the world. It is the best friend of the world’s worst dictators. It exports its weapons to some of the most genocidal regimes including South Sudan, Rwanda, Myanmar and the Philippines.
Nor is this a fluke or outlier. Cellebrite takes its position alongside the world’s largest cyber-hacking firm, Israel’s NSO, which maintains a customer base comprising the world’s worst dictators and human rights violators. Unfortunately, Israel doesn’t export cars as German does. It doesn’t export its culinary tradition as France does. It doesn’t export its fashions as Italy does. And it certainly doesn’t export its democratic traditions as the U.S. and Britain do. Instead, it exports advanced weapons systems. It pioneers killer drones for the world market. It pioneers counter-terror tactics like targeted killing for other nations to emulate. And it exports cyber-tools of repression. This is the tradition and legacy Israel offers the world.