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How Israeli Spyware Endangers Activists Across the Globe

June 13 2023

Israeli surveillance technology is empowering antidemocratic governments to track journalists and human rights activists. Regulation is virtually nonexistent.

The following is an excerpt from The Palestine Laboratory: How Israel Exports the Technology of Occupation Around the World (2023, Verso Books). It has been edited for length and clarity.

Griselda Triana is a Mexican journalist, and human rights activist whose husband, Javier Valdez Cárdenas, was slain by a drug cartel on May 15, 2017, in Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa state. Valdez was the cofounder of the media outlet Riodoce, which investigated corruption and crime, and wrote about the bloody drug war. He paid the ultimate price — a grenade was thrown into his office in 2009. He had received death threats in the months before his murder, but he bravely continued his groundbreaking work despite the threats.

Ten days after his killing, Triana started receiving unexpected text messages on her mobile phone. She had no idea that they were suspicious until almost one year later, when it was discovered that there had been attempts to infiltrate her phone with the Pegasus system, a phone-hacking tool sold by Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, almost certainly by elements within the Mexican state. ​“Before Javier’s murder I did not know that we were being monitored,” she told me. Javier had never informed her about the possibility of phone hacking, and she presumed that he was taking precautions for his safety. ​“Javier knew about the risks of reporting criminal activities, but even so he was aware that someone had to document the atrocities of criminal organizations,” she said.

The murder of Valdez devastated Triana. ​“He was my husband and father of my two children. I was really shocked because Javier didn’t want to leave Sinaloa even though he knew they [the cartels] could kill him.” I asked her why she thought she had been targeted by Pegasus. She said she believed it was because ​“they thought that by tapping the phones they could get data from various sources of information or listen to calls related to Javier’s crime investigations.” To this day, Triana has never been told by the Mexican state why it spied on her — and there’s been no court case for the man accused of masterminding her husband’s death.

Both the Mexican government and NSO claim that Pegasus is used solely for the purposes of fighting crime and terrorism, but Triana’s case proves that this claim is false. Mexico has been a major testing ground for NSO technology. ​“The problem is that it has been used to spy on people who do not represent a danger to the country,” Triana said.

After Valdez’s death, Triana moved to Mexico City, where she works as a journalist and activist. The fear has never gone away, however — the feeling of being violated by both her husband’s gruesome death and the state’s intrusion on her communications. ​“I am afraid every time I visit Culiacán,” she said. ​“It is something that I have not been able to overcome.”

Israel’s surveillance apparatus is a competitor and ally of Washington’s National Security Agency (NSA), the most powerful eavesdropping network in the world. While outmatched in terms of manpower, Israel has a long history of spying on its closest ally, a fact that does not appear to publicly bother the superpower. Some estimates suggest that around 350 American intelligence officials spend their days spying on Israel. Despite this, the NSA partners with Israel and has passed on data-mining and analytical software. In turn, says a former NSA intelligence official, Bill Binney, Israel transfers this technology to private Israeli companies, which allows them to gather a massive amount of sensitive military, diplomatic, and economic information to be shared with Israeli officials.

This is the frame around which to see the role of NSO Group, the world’s most successful cyber-surveillance company, and other Israeli high-tech outfits. NSO works with the Israeli state to further its foreign policy goals, and is used as an alluring carrot to attract potential new friends. Since its inception, NSO has been funded by a range of global players, including London-based equity firm Novalpina Capital. One of the biggest investors in Novalpina, to the tune of US$233 million in 2017, before NSO was on the company’s books, was the Oregon state employees’ pension fund. In 2019 pension money for the British gas provider Centrica was also invested in Novalpina.

Former Haaretz tech reporter Amitai Ziv, who has done some of the most insightful work uncovering NSO, told me that the power of NSO is not in the money that it makes but in diplomacy: ​“When Israel is selling cyber-surveillance to some African country, they can assure their vote at the United Nations. Since there’s an occupation, we need the votes.”

Whether NSO lives or dies, however, will make little difference to the burgeoning global industry in spying tools and cyber weapons. Entire countries can be brought to their knees, such as Russia’s cyberattack on Ukraine’s entire business and government infrastructure in 2017, or government and private companies inserting ​“zero-day” hacks, bugs for which there are no known fixes, into virtually every piece of hardware or software on the planet from computers to TVs to fridges. NSO is the tip of the iceberg of this surging industry, which largely operates in the shadows with no public scrutiny. It’s not just the American, Chinese, Russian, Israeli, or Iranian authorities unleashing cyber hell but a litany of private entities, sometimes built in democracies, that often act as proxies for state actors. Regulation is virtually nonexistent.

If NSO collapses, many others will rise to take its place and countless Israeli rivals are already in business. One company, Paragon, promotes similar services and is backed by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Unit 8200 veterans. Even if all private cyber-hacking firms are shut down globally, a highly unlikely proposition, far more powerful state actors, from Israel to the US and China to Britain, are more than willing to occupy the space. At least seventy-three nations have used spyware. NSO is just the most prominent spyware company, but large numbers of competitors are stepping in, making these tools even easier to obtain.

The role of Israeli surveillance globally is empowering antidemocratic and fascist governments, Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack told me, and it’s not just targeting journalists and human rights activists. The Israeli defense sector is evolving and becoming far less public. ​“In the coming years, I do not see police in Bahrain using Israeli rifles or Israeli drones or missiles being bought by the United Arab Emirates because it could cause another Cuban missile crisis type situation and inflame Iran,” Mack said. ​“But selling Israeli surveillance equipment is much easier to do and not be detected.” He wants NSO spyware completely banned.

When Mack tried in 2016 to force the Israeli state to stop granting NSO an export license, the government succeeded in making all deliberations private. Supreme Court President Justice Esther Hayut was honest about what was at stake: ​“Our economy, as it happens, rests not a little on that export.” The Israeli Ministry of Defense admitted selling weapons to about 130 countries in 2021.

The trajectory of NSO is symptomatic of an Israeli tradition in testing, marketing, and proliferating surveillance technology across the globe. The reasons behind this were explained by the former head of Israel’s Defense Export Control Agency, Eli Pinko, who told a private conference in late 2021 that Israel had no choice but to sell weapons and cybertech to anyone who asked. ​“It’s either the civil rights in some country or Israel’s right to exist,” he said. ​“I would like to see each of you face this dilemma and say: ​‘No, we will champion human rights in the other country.’ Gentlemen, it doesn’t work.”

But it is not just a question of free enterprise. A source with intimate knowledge of Israeli surveillance told me that Israel’s Ministry of Defense had ​“almost complete control” of NSO Group. ​“The MOD controls ownership and rights and has a veto on shareholders, owners and operators,” he said. ​“The tech, patent, and IP [intellectual property] is also controlled and technology has to be protected in a way that it can’t be reverse engineered.”

“I think that it is not well understood by American leaders,” said Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at the digital rights group Electronic Frontier Foundation, to journalist Ronan Farrow at the New Yorker. ​“They keep expecting that the Israeli government will crack down on NSO for this, whereas, in fact, they’re doing the Israeli government’s bidding.” The same willful blindness should be directed at much of the international media for its years of viewing NSO as just a rogue corporation, whereas it has always been a crucial tool of the Israeli state.

“The greater the violence and insecurity become, the greater the business opportunities for these companies.”


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