Cellebrite’s welcome cooperation with SafeUP highlights ethical complexities

The Israeli digital forensics company, often in the line of fire by the public and human rights groups, will support an app designed to create a social network of female solidarity, which helps the safety of women in the public sphere in real time. Commentary

Photo: Neta Schreiber, Osnat Tirosh (Chief People and Corporate Development Officer for Cellebrite), Adi Guzi, and Ronnen Armon (Chief Products and Technology Officer for Cellebrite). Photo: PR / Cellebrite

Cellebrite, an Israeli digital intelligence company, will collaborate with a local startup called SafeUP, which has set up an app designed to create a social network of female solidarity, through which women help each other feel safer and be more protected in the public sphere. 

Since launching this past year, SafeUP already boasts some 90 thousand users in Israel and across Europe and the US. Its real-time app which women can use whenever they feel insecure or fear real danger.

Through the app, women can ask for support, accompaniment and even physical assistance from the women around them, known as SafeUP guards: adults (18 and older) who have undergone a vetting and training program, which equipped them with the right tools for assistance.

Whenever a SafeUP community member feels insecure in the public sphere, she can click on the app and see all available guards in the area. With the push on a button, the app connects woman in need of assistance with the three guards in closest proximity, who will accompany her via audio/video chat, come help her in person, or call the police if necessary. The company states that 75% of users have testified that the app helps them feel safer and spend more time away from the safety of home.

Going on a date anxiety-free, with no rescue plan

As part of the collaboration initiated by Cellebrite, the company’s female employees will join the SafeUP community and will receive training to become guards. In addition, Cellebrite will support a SafeUP ad campaign, in order to have more women join the community. Company employees will also take part in a dedicated hackathon, during which they will suggest and develop new features and capabilities for the app, in order to maximize its protection potential.

The collaboration between Cellebrite and safeUP was launched earlier this week, ahead of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women (which takes place today, November 25th). The launching event included a lecture by Adi Guzi, who became a household name in Israel after saving the life of her neighbor, Shira Issakov, from an attempted murder by her husband.

Neta Schreiber, CEO and co-founder of SafeUP, said at the launch that the app “was brought to life following a painful personal experience, and following the understanding that women can join forces to change reality. This app allows us to come together under the joint goal of creating more secure spaces, in which every woman and girl can feel safe and in control – be it walking in a dark alley without fear, going on a date without anxiety or a rescue plan, dancing in a club, or exercising outdoors late at night.”

“Cellebrite and SafeUP share a vision – creating a safer world,” said Yossi Carmil, Cellebrite’s CEO. “Our company’s goal is to help law enforcement authorities around the world protect and save lives. Among the millions of global investigations in which our technology is involved, violence against women plays a central role. We are therefore excited about the opportunity to help SafeUP increase its number of community members and guards, and contribute in another proactive way to the safety of women worldwide.”

The ethical complexities of digital intelligence

But this welcomed joint initiative shines a light on the complex, multi-dimensional nature of the world of digital intelligence (or, to use a less PC term, surveillance cyber), and to major ethical issues that must be addressed.

On the one hand, thousands of law enforcement agencies in over 140 countries (according to company information) have been using Cellebrite’s technology – a global leader in its sphere of hacking and surveillance – to solve crimes and help maintain public safety.

The Seattle police, for example, has been using this tech in order to save children from sexual abuse and bring the predators to justice. Law enforcement authorities in Brazil managed to track down the heads of a drug trafficking cartel, alongside assets in the millions of dollars. The INTERPOL is another customer, and the list goes on.  

And on the other hand – that same exact technology, when it falls into the wrong hands, can be used for the malicious activities of dubious entities, for which Cellebrite was grilled by human rights activists and global media more than a few times.

Earlier this year, for example, it was revealed that Cellebrite’s product was used to hack into the phones of opposition leaders in Russia and Belarus, possibly by Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR RF). Last year, various reports claimed that the company also sold its products to Venezuela, which is under a US embargo.

Additional unflattering attention included reports that the Hong Kong police used this tech to hack into the phones of pro-democracy opposition leaders, that the Botswana police used it against reporters’ phones, as did top military leaders in pre-coup Burma (Myanmar). And those are just a few examples.

This past July, before the company went public, human rights activists sent a letter to Nasdaq and to the Securities and Exchange Commission, demanding to halt the IPO (which did in fact take place in September) until the company proves it is truly committed to protecting human rights.

In truth, it must be said: Cellebrite is well-aware of the criticism against it, and has been conducting itself wisely. The company stopped selling its products, for instance, to countries such as Russia, Belarus, China and Hong Kong. True, its critics will say that dropping a client only after receiving negative press is not nearly enough, that the company must refrain from selling to certain entities, or at least keep a super watchful eye over the activities of end-users.

But all entirety of the blame cannot be put on a commercial company. The State of Israel, under whose defense export security licensing Cellebrite operates, holds quite a considerable share in the pie of responsibility over improper use. True, Cellebrite claims it does not know what happens to its product after it is sold to the client, a foreign government entity. But that is also because the Israeli law doesn’t require such supervision.

Cellebrite has also recently set up an ethics committee, composed of six members who hold international gravitas – such as William P. Eber, former CTO of the DoD’s Cyber Crime Center, and Anthony J. Ferrante, a former National Security Council senior member. This committee represents another signal from the company, that it is aware of its moral responsibilities (and also to the positive image it is interested in fostering).

But all of this is not enough. And overall transformation is required for the entire DI sphere. Perhaps through tighter state controls over exports or end-users, perhaps through toughening regulations or the enactment of a cyber law, perhaps through other ways.

One thing is clear: a situation in which the very same technology that makes it possible for women to navigate safely through the public sphere might also jeopardize another woman, due to ill use of some malicious user (ironically, a user who might in itself be targeted by legitimate users) – can no longer be accepted.

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