An Israeli digital intelligence firm that supplies law enforcement agencies, prison authorities, border security agencies, and repressive regimes around the world with hacking technologies.
Cellebrite Digital Intelligence Ltd is a digital forensics and surveillance firm headquartered in Israel and majority-owned by Japanese computer manufacturer Sun Corporation. Cellebrite has fourteen offices globally, including in the U.S., Brazil, Canada, Germany, the U.K., France, India, Australia, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. In 2020, the company made $220 million in annual revenue and employed 851 people, the majority of whom were based in Israel. In September 2021, Cellebrite became publicly traded through a merger with TWC Tech Holdings II Corp, a San Francisco-based Special Purpose Acquisition Company (SPAC). Sun Corporation remains a controlling shareholder, owning 71.55% of Cellebrite.
Cellebrite provides digital forensics, intelligence tools, and analysis to law enforcement, military and intelligence agencies, security corporations, law firms, and private digital forensics examiners globally. According to Cellebrite, its clients include police departments in all 50 U.S. states, national law enforcement agencies in 25 of the 27 European Union countries, and 8 out of the 10 largest U.S. banks.
The company's flagship tool, Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED), unlocks mobile devices and computers, bypasses encryption, and extracts information, including contacts, locations, deleted messages, calls, and data collected by apps that the user is unaware of. One UFED device can be used on up to 3,000 phones. The UFED is used in conjunction with another Cellebrite product, Physical Analyzer, which allows its users to analyze the digital evidence and create customized reports.
In 2020, Cellebrite acquired computer forensics company BlackBag Technologies for $33 million. Shortly after the acquisition, Cellebrite announced the release of Inspector and Digital Collector, formerly known as BlackLight and MacQuisition. Like Cellebrite's UFED technology, these products are used to extract personal data, including Internet history, downloads, locations, recent searches, messages, and multimedia files, from mobile devices and computers. Importantly, Cellebrite says that Digital Collector is the only tool on the market capable of extracting data from Mac devices equipped with the Apple T2 security chip. The company has also stated that future updates to Digital Collector will focus on remote collection capabilities.
Surveillance of Immigrants in the US
Cellebrite has acted as a strategic partner to U.S. federal law enforcement agencies, providing technology that allows agents to hack, search, and analyze information stored on electronic devices. From 2005 to 2020, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) awarded Cellebrite 206 contracts — more than any other federal agency — totaling $22 million, for Universal Forensic Extraction Devices (UFED), accessories licenses, and training and support services. This includes a contract for "Macintosh forensics training" from BlackBag Technologies, now a part of Cellebrite. As of July 2021, Cellebrite has two active contracts with ICE for $2 million and $2.8 million. A Cellebrite UFED device costs about $10,000, with a $3,000-$4,000 annual license fee, which suggests that ICE is using this hacking technology on a large scale.
The hacking devices, software, and training provided to ICE grant it access to an immense amount of personal data without a warrant, including geolocation history, internet browsing history, bank records, text messages, and photos. This data is used to track, detain, and deport immigrants, as well as intimidate, criminalize, and repress immigrant communities. As Mijente reported, in 2017 ICE used Cellebrite technology to plan its "largest immigration raid in history," in order to criminalize, arrest, and deport alleged gang members. A 2018 memorandum written by the former Executive Director of ICE to Field Directors and ICE agents noted that one UFED device could download information from 3,000 cellular devices with "virtually no training," and that "contacts and texts could be imported into FALCON," the data analysis system provided by Palantir, "for further exploitation."
In addition to ICE, Cellebrite provides its technologies to Customs and Border Protection (CBP). Between 2005 and 2021, CBP awarded the company over 117 contracts, worth around $5 million. As of July 2021, Cellebrite held five active contracts with CBP for UFED devices, annual licenses, and personnel training. CBP also uses Cellebrite software to track and surveil immigrants, performing warrantless searches at the border and between points of entry as part of the "Tech Wall." These searches allow agents to gather intimate details about individuals' lives in order to interrogate, detain, and ultimately deport individuals seeking asylum.
Civil rights organizations and activists have protested these electronic border searches, claiming that the unregulated searches and seizures were unconstitutional. In a 2017 lawsuit against the federal government, the ACLU claimed that the searches performed by ICE and CBP were "warrantless and suspicionless," and that they violated individuals' First and Fourth Amendment rights. However, on February 9, 2021, a judged ruled that both basic and "advanced" searches fall within "permissible constitutional grounds" at the U.S. border.
Surveillance by Prisons and Law Enforcement
U.S. prisons use Cellebrite technology in order to find and hack into the mobile devices of the people they incarcerate. The company markets its tools to prison authorities as "the key to fighting crime in corrections facilities," adding that they can also assist in stopping crimes outside of prisons. "E-mails, text messages, video clips, photos, geolocation data, cryptocurrency information (wallets and transaction information) gathered from contraband phones can provide valuable evidence," while "providing the ability to trace deadly crime networks across state and international boundaries," according to the copmany.
Cellebrite technology has been purchased by the Departments of Corrections of Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, and Virginia, as well as other state agencies in at least 20 states. The Arizona, Iowa, Illinois, and New Jersey Departments of Public Safety have all spent upwards of $200,000 on software purchases, renewals, and training. Seven cities in California alone—Sacramento, Burbank, Watsonville, Greenfield, San Luis Obispo, Orange County, and Beverly Hills—have documented their use of Cellebrite technology between 2018-2021. The technology has also been purchased by police departments in Florida, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Maine, Delaware, and Missouri, which use the software for everything from traffic accidents to homicide investigations.
U.S. federal law enforcement agencies similarly use Cellebrite hacking technology. As of July 2021, the Department of Justice has held active contracts to provide the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) with Cellebrite's UFED technology. Between 2015 and 2018, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) held contracts with BlackBag Technologies, which was later acquired by Cellebrite, for its MacQuisition software, now called Digital Collector. According to 2020 Forbes article, the technology is poised to make Cellebrite a "one-stop-shop for the feds' Apple hacking needs."
Police forces in Canada, Germany, the U.K., Turkey, Tanzania, Spain, and the Seychelles have also purchased Cellebrite's hacking devices.
Surveillance of Immigrants by other Governments
Asylum seekers use smartphones to plan safe routes and access information about vital services when they arrive in a safe country. The growing market of surveillance technology allows European countries to use migrants' phones to criminalize and deport them.
In a 2019 marketing presentation to government officials worldwide, Cellebrite outlined the importance of surveillance technology to investigative asylum seekers: "77% of refugees arrive without document," but "nearly half (43%) have a smartphone during their journey." Thereore, "in lieu of documents, a person's phone could be used to find out who they are, what they have been doing, where they have been, when, and ultimately why they are seeking asylum."
In 2017, Germany and Denmark expanded laws to search and extract data from asylum seekers' phones, while the U.K. and Norway were reported to have already been using this technology. The U.K. Home Office's Immigration Enforcement purchased £45,000 worth of Cellebrite technology in 2018. In 2018, Georgia applied through the International Organization for Migration for receive Cellebrite UFEDs for the national project "Sustaining Border Management and Migration Governance in Georgia."
Supplying the Israeli Police and other Repressive Regimes
The Israeli Police has been using Cellebrite technology since 2016. In 2021, the Israeli Police awarded Cellebrite a $6 million contract for multiple products, including UFEDs for PC and mobile devices, BlackLight, and MacQuisition, until March, 2024.
Cellebrite's technology has been purchased by many countries that persecute journalists, civil rights activists, dissidents, and minorities. In 2021 before the company was publicly listed on the NASDAQ, Access Now published an open letter to the SEC, NASDAQ, and other relevant stakeholders to prevent the listing until Cellebrite takes sufficient steps to stop current human rights violations.
Listed below are recorded incidents of such sales of Cellebrite surveillance technology.
Russia: Documents link Cellebrite's technology with the persecution of minority groups in Russia. Cellebrite's technology was used to target the LGBTQ community, opposition forces, and minorities in Russia by its Investigative Committee. The Investigative Committee, which has been persecuting Alexey Navalny, Pussy Riot, and LGBTQ+ activist Yulia Tsvetkova, among others, bragged about using Cellebrite's technology more than 26,000 times. Under pressure from human rights activists, including Israeli lawyer Eitay Mack, the company announced in March 2021 that it would halt sales to Russia.
India: Medianama reported that Cellebrite's UFED Ultimate and Physical Analyzer is used to extract information form smartphones by the Delhi Police in India. The Delhi Police are under scrutiny for widespread, intrusive surveillance projects targeting peaceful protestors and opposition lawmakers. In 2020, Cellebrite pitched the Indian Police Service its technology to trace coronavirus.
Indonesia: In 2020, Haaretz reported that Indonesia employed Cellebrite's UFED technology to stifle political dissident and to enforce controversial "modesty" laws.
Botswana: CPJ's investigation revealed that the Botswana Police Service used UFED in April 2020 to obtain incriminating information and reveal the contacts of Oratile Dikologang, a journalist with Botswana People's Daily News. The police allegedly stripped Dikologang naked and pulled a plastic bag over his head during the interrogation.
China: The Hong Kong Police Force used Cellebrite's technology to attack pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong in 2020. Cellebrite's devices were used to crack the phones of nearly 4,000 Hong Kong citizens. Pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong announced that Cellebrite's technology was used to search his device. The activist, along with Israeli lawyer Eitay Mack and others, called on Israeli authorities to block Cellebrite from exporting to Hong Kong. Cellebrite stopped selling its products to China and Hong Kong in October 2020.
Bangladesh: Documents from 2019 show that the Bangladesh Rapid Action Battalion, also called the "Death Squad," acquired Cellebrite's phone-hacking tech and training. This paramilitary unit is accused of extrajudicial killings and the torture of hundreds of civilians. Cellebrite made the decision to halt sales to Bangladesh in early 2021.
Ghana: CPJ reported that, in 2017 and 2019, the U.S. and Interpol provided Cellebrite devices to the Ghanian authorities, which are known for arresting journalists and searching their phones for sources.
Myanmar: Myanmar reportedly used Cellebrite's UFED technology to retrieve documents from journalists' phones. Between 2017 and 2018, the Myanmar government used UFED to prosecute two Reuters journalists, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo. The journalists were accused of violating state secrecy laws for their Pulitzer Prize-winning reporting on atrocities against the country's Rohingya Muslim minority. While Cellebrite claims that it stopped selling its products in Myanmar in late 2018, Freedom House and human rights lawyer Khin Maung Zaw claim that the government is still using this technology. In March 2021, Justice for Myanmar announced that it had obtained proposed budgets for Myanmar's Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Transport and Communications that reflected purchases of Cellebrite technology spanning 2018 to 2021. The New York Times reported that the latest budget included MacQuisition software.
Belarus: In an appeal against Israel's Defense Export Control Agency, Defense Ministry, and Cellebrite, Eitay Mack, a lawyer and human rights activist, together with 80 human rights activists, revealed documents that link Cellebrite's technology with the persecution of political actors in Belarus. Lukashenko's administration has purchased and used Cellebrite's hacking technology since 2016.
Bahrain: According to an investigation by the Intercept, in 2013, the Bahraini government used Cellebrite's UFED to prosecute political activists. One of them is activist Mohammed al-Singace, who is currently serving a 10-year sentence in a Bahrain prison. After torturing al-Singace, the government reportedly used Cellebrite's equipment to extract the contents of his phone — the activist's private WhatsApp messages and photos. These were then used as evidence against him. Cellebrite's technology was also allegedly used to investigate and prosecute another Bahraini human rights defender, Naji Fateel, who was similarly tortured and is serving a 15-year prison sentence.
United Arab Emirates: Cellebrite's technology has reportedly been operated by the UAE's Ministry of Interior since 2011. According to Globes, Cellebrite signed a deal with a government agency in Abu Dhabi in 2020. The deal is estimated to be worth $3 million. Globes reported that the deal was brokered by former Israeli Mossad executive David Meidan. In July 2021, Cellebrite published a job offer for a Director of Strategic Accounts for the UAE.
Venezuela: In 2020, Cellebrite sold its phone-hacking technology to Nicolás Maduro's regime in Venezuela, despite American sanctions which ban exports to the country.
Saudi Arabi: Cellebrite provided phone-hacking services to Saudi Arabia in 2019.
Nigeria: From 2014 to 2017, the Nigerian government bought $350 million worth of surveillance equipment. Nigerian security forces have used Cellebrite's UFED to monitor their political opponents.