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26 Aug 2021

Mara Hvistendahl, The Intercept

Chinese police kept buying Cellebrite phone crackers after company said it ended sales

In its bid to go public next week, Israeli cellphone hacking company Cellebrite has tried to present itself as a defender of global human rights, highlighting its withdrawal from Bangladesh, Belarus, China, Hong Kong, Russia, and Venezuela. In a presentation to investors filed with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this month, the company claimed that its mission was to “protect and save lives, accelerate justice and preserve privacy in global communities.”

But even after Cellebrite said it withdrew from China and Hong Kong, an Intercept investigation has found, police on the mainland continued to buy the company’s Universal Forensic Extraction Device, or UFED, products, which allow officers to break into phones in their possession and siphon off data. While Cellebrite did deregister its Chinese subsidiary earlier this year, it appears to have done little about the brokers that peddle its hacking technology. Chinese government procurement award notices and posts on resellers’ websites show that police have continued to purchase powerful Cellebrite software, while resellers have continued to provide updates for the software. In one case, a reseller reported delivering the Israeli company’s software to border guards in Tibet and demonstrating how it could be used to search people’s WeChat accounts.

... In response to a detailed list of questions, a public relations firm hired by Cellebrite sent a statement. “Cellebrite has developed a strong compliance framework, and our sales decisions are guided by internal parameters, which consider a potential customer’s human rights record and anti-corruption policies,” the statement reads. “Cellebrite remains committed to safeguarding human rights and has developed strict controls ensuring that our technology is used appropriately in legally sanctioned investigations.”

The company did not respond to specific findings about the continued sale of its products in China.

The revelations raise questions about Cellebrite’s ability to tamp down human rights controversies going forward, a key issue for the company.

... Cellebrite declined to comment on the size of its China operation or on whether it employed researchers there prior to its withdrawal from the market. As Cellebrite prepared to exit China, an Israeli lawyer in Shanghai was made the company’s chief representative there. When reached by phone, she hung up.

... Both Beijing Information Security Technology and Smile, the broker that brought Cellebrite technology to border guards in Tibet, continue to offer the Israeli company’s products for sale on their websites.