At the time of the coronavirus pandemic, Naftali Bennett, then Israel’s defense minister, had an idea to help curb the spread of the disease: let the military spyware maker NSO track every movement of its fellow citizens. .
The suggestion of the man who is now the Israeli prime minister has not passed. But it shows the close ties that Israeli society has assaulted by rights activists for the sale of military-grade surveillance software to repressive regimes with the highest levels in the state.
NSO’s Pegasus software, which requires a government license to export because it is considered a weapon, has become in recent years a crucial part of Israel’s diplomatic spread – a role that has come into play. in focus following this weekend’s revelation by a consortium of newspapers that had been tracked down to the mobile phones of 37 journalists, lawyers and political activists. The software surreptitiously transforms phones into listening devices while revealing their encrypted contents.
“Since the 1950s, Israel has used its arms sales to earn diplomatically, the only thing that changes are the names of the countries,” said Eitay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer who has tried for years. to revoke the NSO’s export license. “The question is whether there will be any change in export policy.”
While recent media losses in Pegasus have sparked international outrage, criticism in Israel has been silenced. The report “seems biased, with a commercial motivation,” said lawmaker Yair Golan, a former deputy military chief, jumping to support the NSO in a televised speech. “It’s not just NSO that does such things.”
The Ministry of Defense, which must approve any license to export weapons, said “appropriate measures have been taken” if any violations of the export license are demonstrated.
NSO co-founder and chief executive Shalev Hulio has denied the consortium’s findings, which claim that NSO’s spyware has been used regularly on members of civil society, opposition leaders and people without any connection. with terrorism or crime.
“We have stated very vocally that these are not Pegasus targets, or selected as Pegasus targets, or potential Pegasus targets. This has nothing to do with any of our customers or NSO technology,” he told the Financial Times, promising to shut down any client systems that are proven to infect devices belonging to journalists or members of civil society.
NSO has said in the past that it has no access to its client’s goals. Hulio said the company had asked each of its customers individually to reach this conclusion.
“The game everyone wants”
In recent years, Israel has attracted Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia to improve bilateral relations, offering clandestine security cooperation against common regional enemies, from the Muslim Brotherhood in Iran.
As countries approached, groups such as Amnesty and the Citizen Lab followed Pegasus ’growing intrusions into the phones of journalists, dissidents and activists across the region.
“It’s like the game that every intelligence officer wants,” said one person involved in launching NSO products in the Gulf. “They love demos, they love being from Israel.”
Similarly, the Pegasus attacks have been documented on the grounds of criticism from the governments of Hungary, India and Rwanda, since former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pursued alliances with his right-wing leaders.
Israel has for years ignored calls from a UN Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, and others, to impose a moratorium on the sale of spyware and regulate it more closely.
The executive director of the NSO rejected any suggestion that the company’s products should be exploited by Israel abroad.
“We are not an instrument of diplomacy for the Israeli government; we are a commercial company, our shareholders are private equity in the UK,” Hulio said, referring to Novalpina Capital. “These accusations are just theories.”
“The government is looking forward to helping you.”
Those who have fought against the NSO’s influence in Israel say that the society enjoys strong support from Israeli legal and political circles.
An Israeli judge has imposed a scathing order on Mexican rights activists to have their lawsuit against the society heard in secret.
A judge with a long history in military intelligence oversees a case brought by a Saudi dissident and friend of the assassinated Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The friend says NSO was aware that his own phone was intended. The judge refused to refuse, despite the statement of a previous relationship with NSO lawyers.
“The impression I have is that the government is eager to help them, especially when it comes to keeping the discussion away from any public scrutiny,” said Alaa Mahajna, the chief lawyer of the two cases.
“Companies should be held accountable for the dangerous technology they sell, but the most efficient way is prevention and, unfortunately, only the Ministry of Defense can do that.”
Hulio refused to comment on the ongoing cases. NSO said: “These issues have previously been brought in court cases against NSO and others and the courts have never accepted this position.”
For its part, NSO has made no secret of its ties with the Israeli government. In 2019, his lawyers argued in a court case that the disclosure of his client list “significantly damages the state’s foreign relations.” In a separate presentation, the company also said that the Israeli government itself uses NSO technology. Many of its staff are from elite military intelligence units.
NSO has hired big-name Western advisers, including Tom Ridge, the former U.S. security secretary, and briefly, Juliette Kayyem, assistant secretary in the same department. His current PR offensive is led by the former Israeli army censor.
At times, the Israeli government has intervened to direct the company’s sales, say two people with knowledge of the problem, especially after large-scale scandals, such as when Saudi operators killed Khashoggi in Istanbul in October 2018.
NSO initially signed a contract with Saudi Arabia amid allegations that its technology had been used to track Khashoggi and his associates. But in 2019 he renewed the contract with the full approval of the Israeli government, say two people with knowledge of the problem.
“There has been direct encouragement to keep this relationship alive,” said one, adding that NSO employees returning from the Gulf have often been described by Israeli intelligence. Hulio of the NSO denied that such briefings were done.
“The holy cow of the economy”
Often, the Israeli government’s ties have been made more public. After a dam collapsed in Brazil in January 2019, killing hundreds of people, the government sent Hulio from the NSO, which is reserved in the search and rescue unit of the Israeli army, as part of its mission to help.
“I traveled there as part of my duty to reserve. I’m proud of what I do and it has nothing to do with NSO, ”he said.
Hulio presented how NSO software can also be used to triangulate cell phone locations to the last inch, according to people familiar with his journey.
“Israel has certain diplomatic goals, and its interests and the interests of these trading companies may sometimes collide,” said Shay Aspril, author and investigative journalist who first exposed the ONS ’secret technology. in 2012.
“The Israeli public does not fully understand what is happening in high technology – the holy grail of the economy – and because the Israeli public is not really interested, there is no public pressure on the government to change anything.” .