Human rights groups call for halt to phone-cracking Cellebrite’s share listing

In a letter to SEC, Nasdaq, and SPAC with which Israel-based firm is set to merge, groups say digital forensic company should first show commitment to safeguarding human rights

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

The Nasdaq building in Times Square in New York. (littleny, iStock by Getty Images)
The Nasdaq building in Times Square in New York. (littleny, iStock by Getty Images)

Human rights groups including Access Now have called on the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Nasdaq and other stakeholders to halt the bid of Israel-based Cellebrite to list its shares on the US exchange until it demonstrates its commitment to safeguarding human rights.

The Israeli digital intelligence firm, according to the open letter sent by Access Now and other groups, creates technology that is used to violate human rights across the globe.

The firm, which has come under scrutiny of human rights groups for its digital forensic technologies, said in April it had entered an agreement to merge with TWC Tech Holdings II Corp, a publicly traded special purpose acquisition company (SPAC).

Last year, human rights groups asked the Israeli Defense Ministry body that monitors exports to immediately halt the sale of Cellebrite’s phone hacking technology to Belarus, arguing that it should be subject to the same strict guidelines as military equipment.

“Cellebrite itself has admitted that its products pose risks to human rights,” the open letter said. “In both a presentation to investors and a draft registration statement to the SEC, Cellebrite acknowledges that one of the company’s key risks is that some of its ‘products may be used by customers in a way that is, or that is perceived to be, incompatible with human rights’ and that ‘any such perception could adversely affect [its] reputation, revenue and results of operations.’

“Despite this acknowledgment, Cellebrite continues selling its products to repressive regimes and enabling detentions, prosecutions, and harassment of journalists, civil rights activists, dissidents, and minorities around the world,” the letter said. “Many of these activities were originally reported by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and media outlets, and are further detailed in Access Now’s report dated May 28, 2021.”

On June 11, US Representative Tom Malinowski issued a number of recommendations to the SEC, NASDAQ, TWC Tech Holdings II Corp., the SPAC firm with which Cellebrite is merging, and Cellebrite’s future investors to decline approval of the firm’s public listing until Cellebrite sufficiently addresses the human rights risks resulting from its transactions, the letter said.

It calls on the SEC and the Nasdaq to decline to approve the paperwork and the listing of the firm until human rights compliance is demonstrated, on the SPAC shareholders to delay the closing of the merger, and on investors to hold their funds, for the same reason.

Petah Tikva-based Cellebrite was reportedly the company the FBI used in 2016 to hack into the iPhone of the San Bernardino shooter after Apple refused the US government’s request to build a backdoor into its famously secure operating system.

Cellebrite’s technology does not work remotely. It requires a specially designed device to be physically connected to the phone being hacked.

In a text message, Cellbrite said that it was “committed to safeguarding human rights and has developed robust controls to ensure that our technology is used appropriately in legally sanctioned investigations.

“Our solutions help every year in millions of investigations around the globe, in solving severe crimes – from child exploitation, rape and domestic violence, to anti-terror, human trafficking, along with many others. Our thousands of global customers, including some of the world leading law enforcement agencies, are committed to the lawful use of our technology to help build a safer world.

“We sell our technology only to companies, bodies and agencies that abide by the terms that govern its proper use as outlined in our End-User Licensing Agreement (EULA). Customers that do not comply with these terms no longer receive active product support or have their licenses renewed.

“Cellebrite does not sell to countries sanctioned by the US, EU, UK or Israeli governments,” Cellbrite’s text message said.

Access Now has offices including in New York, Toronto, Costa Rica and Tunis, and seeks to provide human-rights focused thought leadership and evidence-based policy analysis, according to its website. The organization says it works with regional partners to strengthen human rights globally.

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