Germany's Deutsche Welle has said that a spokesperson of Cellebrite on Wednesday said that the company's image may be tarnished due to reports in the media and also cases filed in Israeli courts to stop sales of their products to Russia, Bangladesh and a number of other countries. Cellebrite also said allegations that customers are misusing their products may tarnish their image in the future too, even if they were not a part of this misuse or if they take speedy steps to curtail their relations with those customers.
Bangladesh's home minister Asaduzzaman Khan told Deutsche Welle that no such equipment had been imported from Israel. He said, "We do not have any such relations with Israel that we will import such equipment from them." He did say, however, "We do procure artificial intelligence (AI) equipment from various countries." As to whether RAB uses Cellebrite spyware, the home minister said, "We never imported the equipment used by RAB from Israel."
Al Jazeera investigations state that Bangladesh purchased phone hacking technology and though it was bought from Hungary, basically this was a product of the Israeli company Picsix
It is not certain what the home minister means by artificial intelligence equipment. But we do know that computing or digital technology depends entirely on artificial intelligence. So we may be impressed by his clever manipulation of words, but we can't be reassured. We may not have relations with Israel, but that does not mean we can't import their products from a third country.
There are allegations that we purchase such equipment through a third country like Singapore or Hungary. Al Jazeera investigations state that Bangladesh purchased phone hacking technology and though it was bought from Hungary, basically this was a product of the Israeli company Picsix.
In 2019, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace studies published 'The Global Expansion of AI Surveillance' with an index of global AI surveillance. Over there it showed that all surveillance technology was being used in Bangladesh.
The controversy over phone hacking technology came to the fore in recent times due to its misuse. The joint initiative by journalists 'Forbidden Stories' and Amnesty International's recent joint investigations prove that the misuse of the Pegasus spyware has reached unbelievable heights. Firstly, it has become a great favourite among authoritarian governments. And secondly, politicians and journalists with differing views are the most targetted by this phone-hacking.
And it is not just those with differing views. It has been revealed that the security forces in Morocco even bug the phones of the king and the prime minister. Others leaders whose names have cropped up include Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan and French president Emmanuel Macron. This misuse of Pegasus is so politically sensitive that even the Israel government has been obliged to announce an inquiry into NSO's activities.
The misuse of Pegasus has perhaps been felt most acutely in Bangladesh's neighbouring state India. It was reported that the phones of top editors and journalists, intellectuals with differing views, opposition politicians and even the government technology affairs minister, were being hacked. There were allegations that this Pegasus was used to take unfair advantage in the West Bengal elections too. The Editors Guild, some journalists and a Congress leader resorted to the court and the Supreme Court has taken up hearing of the case. Chief Justice NV Ramana on the first day of the hearing said that if the allegations prove to be true, this was certainly a serious matter. He said it was necessary to know the truth, adding that they still did not know whose names were involved.
There is no alternative to preventing the misuse of such technology other than by means of effective democracy and the rule of law.
Pegasus and Cellebrite's Universal Forensic Extraction Device are both used to hack phones. In several publications of Canada's digital lab known for researching such technology, it has been revealed that Pegasus can enter a user's cell phone without the user knowing. Then all information in the phone comes under surveillance.
Cellebrite's Universal Forensic Extraction Device can also extract information from others phones from a distance. Members of the security forces can use this to track the movements of the persons under their surveillance. They can get all information from their phones. According to Cellebrite's website, other than from cell phones, this technology can be used to gether information from other devices and unlock password protected and encrypted files.
The security forces claim that the use of such technology is necessary to prevent terrorism and serious crimes. The government also does not hold back in allocating funds to meet their demands. But the problem is that the citizens do not have any legal protection from this, nor is there any supervision in place to prevent the illegal use or misuse of this technology.
The citizens have constitutional right to privacy in their personal communications. Yet this is being violated in the name of security. These users are, at times, politicians in power and, at times, officials of the security forces. After the conversation between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition was leaked, no one has been spared. It is noticeable that those whose conversations have been leaked, are all anti-government elements or have incurred the displeasure of someone in the government.
There is no alternative to preventing the misuse of such technology other than by means of effective democracy and the rule of law. Cellebrite has said their decision is the result of a global movement. If others involved in developing such technology follow the Cellebrite path, this may yield positive results.
* This report appeared in the print and online editions of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir