Ethiopia Obtains Phone-hacking Tech From Israeli Firm Cellebrite
As many other repressive regimes, the Ethiopian federal police have been using Cellebrite’s technology at the height of a civil war that caused tens of thousands of casualties and the prosecution of ‘unauthorized’ news outlets.
The Ethiopian police, who according to reports, are responsible for mass detention of minorities and persecution of opposition forces and journalists, have purchased technology from the Israeli digital intelligence company Cellebrite to hack into the cellphones of detainees.
The Ethiopian federal police have been using Cellebrite’s systems since 2021, at the height of the civil war between the country’s prime minister’s forces and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Force.
The flagship product of Cellebrite – a public company traded on NASDAQ – is a technology called UFED, which is used by authorities to hack into seized phones which are password-protected. This in turn allows Cellebrite’s clients to download all the information stored on those devices, including media files and text messages, call histories, contacts and more.
As Haaretz has repeatedly reported, Cellebrite clients included at the time repressive regimes under sanctions, among them Belarus, China, Hong Kong, Uganda, Venezuela, Indonesia, the Philippines and the notorious RAB death squad in Bangladesh.
In October, Haaretz reported that Russia continued to use UFED, although Cellebrite announced in 2021 that it had stopped its activities in Russia in light of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s human rights infractions.
In a letter sent by Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack to Israel’s Defense Ministry and Cellebrite, a number of human rights activists call for cessation of sales of the technology and support services to Ethiopia’s repressive regime.
The letter follows a harsh report by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, that details how Ethiopia has committed crimes against humanity and war crimes during the last round of fighting.
The report states that since November 2020, security and civilian forces have been responsible for “extrajudicial executions, rape and other acts of sexual violence. The widespread pillage of crops and livestock, and the looting and occupation of Tigrayan homes, destroyed sources of livelihood. Tigrayans have faced mass arrests and prolonged arbitrary detentions in formal and informal detention sites where detainees were killed, tortured, and ill-treated.”
A joint investigative commission by the UN and the Ethiopian Human Rights Commission found that both sides have committed crimes against humanity, war crimes and serious infractions of human rights including intentional artillery fire against civilians, executions, torture and rape. Some 2.6 million people have been uprooted from their homes.
On November 2, a peace treaty was signed between the Ethiopian government and the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front, but conditions in the northern state (one of nine that make up Ethiopia), are still harsh. Government forces have retreated, but the Eritrean Army and militias of the state of Amhara, which are assisting Ethiopia, are still active in Tigray. Meanwhile, the TPLF has not yet disarmed.
Ethiopia’s federal police, which is under the direct aegis of the Prime Minister’s Office, posted on its Facebook page that it had purchased UFED systems and ancillary equipment for its Crime Investigation Bureau. Accompanying photos show police officials exhibiting new Cellebrite systems, out of the box.
According to Mack, the Crime Investigation Bureau serves Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed to persecute minorities, opponents of the regime and journalists. Ahmed has taken advantage of the civil war against the Tigrayan minority to declare a state of emergency in the country and arrest tens of thousands of people.
“The detainees are held for long periods without trial, are severely tortured and some are murdered. In June 2021, mainly in Addis Ababa, security forces, especially the federal police, began searching homes, arresting and disappearing civilians based on their Tigrayan ethnicity,” Mack wrote in the letter to the Defense Ministry and Cellebrite.
Since the beginning of the civil war, 63 journalists have been arrested, most of them Tigrayan. In August, the federal police indicted 111 “unauthorized” digital media outlets claiming incitement to violence, hate-mongering and harming the government. Over the past year, a number of independent media outlets have had to cease operations due to persecution by Ahmed’s regime.
The journalist Tamerat Negara, who returned to Ethiopia after years in exile and founded the website Terara Network, was arrested, released without charges and fled the country. Negara told the BBC that he had to leave out of fear for his life and the lives of his family. He said he had stayed in the country for seven months in the hope that things would change, but they had only worsened, and that he did not believe that one could tell the truth in Ethiopia.
Last week, Meskerem Abera, a lecturer and journalist with a pro-Amharic position on the conflict in Oromia, Ethiopia’s largest state and home to the Oroma people, was once again arrested. According to her husband, Abera was arrested by the Crime Investigation Bureau, which is now in possession of Cellebrite hacking equipment. Abera, the mother of a one-year-old baby, was first arrested in May, together with more than 10 journalists and thousands of civilians, according to the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists.
No evidence of the use of Cellebrite equipment has been found so far in reports from Ethiopia. However, some reports mention similar technology. For example, the federal police sought to extend the detention of the journalist Solomon Shumeye, and told the court that they had sent “electronic equipment taken from the suspect” to the “relevant investigative body.”
A woman by the name of Meron Tedele said that she had been arrested in the middle of the night by plainclothes’ police, who covered her head with a mask, opened her telephone and looked for information about her Facebook posts, her contacts and her political affiliation. Tedele, who spoke to the Ethiopian Reporter stressed that she is not a political activist.
“And so it happened that in another country, Cellebrite is assisting and/or might assist in serious infractions of the human rights of citizens of certain ethnic groups, protesters, journalists, opposition and democracy activists, as well as their contacts, friends and family,” Mack wrote in the letter.
“The repercussions of the hacking of mobile phones in Ethiopia could be abduction, blackmail, torture and extrajudicial execution, disappearance and deprivation of right without due process of the citizens who own these phones, as well as their friends and relatives,” Mack added.
Cellebrite didn’t deny that it sold its products to Ethiopia. The company said in a statement that it is “committed to its mission of creating a safer world by giving solutions to law enforcement bodies and strictly legal and ethical use of its products. To this end, we have developed stringent means of monitoring that will ensure proper use of our technology in the framework of investigations carried out legally.”
The company stated that “As a global leader in digital intelligence, Cellebrite’s solutions help thousands of law enforcement agencies to convict those who endanger public security and to bring justice to crime victims.”
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