No One Is Safe From Israel’s Spyware System

Cyber security has evolved to be a top priority in the agendas of developed and developing states. The recent social media blackout has shown once again that we are becoming so dependent on technologies. It is understandable that technical innovation is a means of survival, not just a prerequisite for development, particularly after the outbreak of the global pandemic. Technology, nonetheless, is a blessing and a curse.

As of 2021, it has become clear that no one is safe from electronic surveillance, not to mention the power players. Israel has been developing its cyber capabilities to crack down on the Palestinians, in addition to helping other authoritarian states monitor their citizens.

Last week, the Palestinian Foreign Ministry, in a first official announcement against the NSO Group, an Israeli spyware company, said that at least 3 Palestinian senior officials were targets of spyware developed by the Israeli company. The company refused to respond to these allegations, insisting that it has no right to disclose information about its clients, or the targets.

These acquisitions came amid a controversial decision announced this month by the US Department of Commerce, blacklisting the company for cooperating with repressive regimes in monitoring citizens and heads of state.

The US Commerce Department said the decision was “based on evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics and embassy workers.

“These tools have also enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists, and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent. Such practices threaten the rules-based international order,” it said.

Ahmed al-Deek, the assistant Palestinian foreign minister for political affairs, said a “professional Palestinian institution” inspected several phones and detected Pegasus on three of them. It was not immediately clear if the results were verified by outside researchers.

NSO is not the only company targeting human rights groups. A report by Montreal-based researchers from Slovakian company Eset, an internet security firm, found that the Israeli company, Candiru, the most mysterious cyber warfare company, has links to recent attacks against top news outlets like Middle East Eye. It’s noteworthy that Candiru as well was dragged to the US’ blacklist this month.

Fears soar over the possibility that Israel might be using spyware trade as a diplomatic card. “In Israel, there is a strong political movement to make diplomacy through business,” said the person, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “Business first, diplomacy later. When you make a deal together, it opens a lot of doors to diplomacy.”

According to the Guardian, Israel gave the Israeli tech companies the green light to sell spywares to authoritarian regimes like Saudi Arabia. In a deal with the Saudi regime, NSO sold spywares worth at least $55m.

Edward Joseph Snowden, a former computer intelligence consultant who leaked highly classified information from the National Security Agency in 2013, called on the global community to halt the spyware trade, or to face a world where all mobile phones are unsafe.

“Revelations regarding the apparent widespread use of the Pegasus software to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians, and others in a variety of countries are extremely alarming and seem to confirm some of the worst fears about the potential misuse of surveillance technology to illegally undermine people’s human rights,” UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said in a statement.

Though companies like NSO are primarily formed to help governments thwart online terrorism, the lack of a “rights-based” approach to spyware trade poses a threat to digital rights. Though we have hopes that the ongoing US’ decisions against Israel’s tech firms might “slightly” deter them, we should keep our expectations low.

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