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5 May 2021

Jonathan Rozen, CPJ

Botswana: Police use technology from Cellebrite and AccessData to target journalists' phones

"Equipped by US, Israeli firms, police in Botswana search phones for sources", 5 May 2021

Oratile Dikologang was naked when police officers pulled black plastic over his head during his detention in April 2020... Dikologang, the digital editor and co-founder of the Botswana People’s Daily News website, and two others still face jail time in relation to Facebook posts that police were investigating when they hauled the three in for questioning. CPJ documented the incidents this month, and made several attempts to reach representatives of the government and police in Botswana for comment. Dikologang denies responsibility for the Facebook posts at the heart of the case, and said that police questioned him about his own reporting.

... To examine [Dikologang's] phone, police used a Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED) sold by Israel-based Cellebrite and a Forensic Toolkit (FTK) from U.S.-based AccessData, according to the affidavit from the Botswana Police Service Digital Forensics Laboratory, which CPJ reviewed. Websites run by the two companies advertise their technologies’ utility for extracting information from phones and computers, as well as breaking into locked devices and decrypting information.

The search of a journalist’s phone in detention exemplifies the threat digital forensics technologies pose to privacy and press freedom around the world...

The documents say Orange Botswana also identified accounts owned by the three men facing charges and provided an “activity log” from Dikologang’s; a company representative previously told CPJ by email that they “comply with all court orders” and cannot disclose details to third parties. In a follow-up email regarding Mogapi’s subscriber report, Orange Botswana said CPJ should direct questions to the police in Botswana.

... Cellebrite responded to CPJ’s questions by email in April via representatives of Fusion Public Relations company. “We have multiple checks and balances to ensure our technology is used as intended. We require that agencies and governments that use our technology uphold the standards of international human rights law,” the email said. “When our technology is used in a manner that does not meet international law or does not comply with Cellebrite’s values, we take swift and appropriate action, including terminating agreements,” the email said. Cellebrite declined to comment on “any specifics” involving their customers or the use of their technology.

On April 8, Cellebrite, which is owned by the Japan-based Sun Corporation, announced it would go public via a shell company and be listed on Nasdaq, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

In an emailed response to CPJ’s questions, Sun Corporation said, “We are very sorry to hear about what happened, however we are afraid that we are not prepared to provide any comments, where there is no evidence provided.” CPJ asked what kind of evidence would warrant a response, but received no reply.

AccessData and its parent company, Exterro, did not respond to questions CPJ emailed in mid-April... CPJ called AccessData’s offices in the U.S. but was unable to connect to a representative. A voicemail CPJ left on the company’s U.K. phone number in May was not returned before publication. In early May, a person who answered the phone at Exterro’s U.K. office said they would find someone to respond to questions, but did not return CPJ’s call before publication.

“This affects my work,” Dikologang told CPJ of the incident. “Since [my sources] know the phone has been taken by the state, maybe they will be afraid to give information.”