In a recent expose, Israeli cybertechnology firm Cellebrite has come under scrutiny for its role in providing digital forensic tools to Pakistan’s Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and various police units. The flagship product, UFED, enables law enforcement agencies to gain access to password-protected cellphones and extract sensitive information, including pictures, documents, text messages, calling histories, and contacts. While Cellebrite claims its tools are sold to fight serious crimes, reports indicate that they have found their way into the hands of oppressive regimes that violate human rights and target activists and minorities.
Human Rights Violations in Pakistan
Pakistan has long been criticized for its serious human rights violations and restrictions on freedom of expression. The U.S. State Department’s 2022 report highlighted significant issues, including unlawful killings, forced disappearances, torture, arbitrary detention, and restrictions on media and free expression. In 2016, Pakistan passed the Pakistan Electronic Crimes Act (PECA), further curtailing online freedom of expression, allowing strict online censorship without court orders, and enabling the collection of information from locked devices without legal oversight.
Cellebrite’s Involvement with Repressive Regimes
Cellebrite’s clients have included oppressive regimes, some of which have been subject to international sanctions. Countries like Belarus, China (including Hong Kong), Uganda, Venezuela, Indonesia, the Philippines, Russia, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh’s Rapid Action Battalion have reportedly used Cellebrite’s tools to target human rights activists, minorities, and LGBTQ communities. These actions raise serious ethical questions about the company’s responsibility and accountability for its technology’s misuse.
Israel’s involvement in cyberdiplomacy, promoting the export of digital weaponry to countries in exchange for official or secret agreements, has been a subject of concern. While Cellebrite operates in a gray area between security exports and civilian products, its systems fall under the Defense Ministry’s oversight since they are included in the Wassenaar Arrangement on Export Controls for Conventional Arms and Dual-Use Goods and Technologies.
Israel-Pakistan Relations and Pakistani Law
Despite having held talks via secret channels in the past, Pakistan officially boycotts contacts with Israel, and Pakistani passports are explicitly not valid for travel to Israel. Pakistani law imposes prison sentences on citizens who visit Israel or engage in activities supporting normalization of relations between the two countries.
Cellebrite’s Response and Accountability
In response to the allegations, Cellebrite denied selling directly or indirectly to Pakistan but failed to address the shipment certificates and official tenders that indicated the use of their technology in the country. The company reiterated its commitment to creating a safer world by assisting law enforcement agencies, but these claims are overshadowed by the technology’s use in repressive regimes.
Cellebrite’s association with repressive regimes and its alleged provision of digital forensic tools to Pakistan’s security forces raise serious concerns about human rights violations and the misuse of technology. The case highlights the need for stricter oversight and accountability measures in the cyber technology industry to prevent the tools meant to fight crime from being used to oppress individuals and undermine freedom of expression. As the world grapples with the ethical implications of cyber weaponry, the actions of companies like Cellebrite and the role of governments in regulating these technologies come under intense scrutiny.