Israeli spyware: tested on Palestinians, deployed around the world

18 August 2021
Kim Bullimore

French President Emmanuel Macron and fifteen of his ministers were forced to change their phones and numbers in July after it was revealed that they were targeted in 2019 by Moroccan authorities using Israeli-made spyware called Pegasus. Once installed, the Pegasus spyware can access and turn on a smartphone’s camera and microphone and access all applications, harvesting GPS location data, photos, videos, SMS messages, emails, WhatsApp chats, calendar and phone contacts.

According to French newspaper Le Monde, Macron’s and his ministers’ mobile phone numbers were among more than 50,000 targeted by the spyware, which was developed by cyber-surveillance company NSO Group Technologies. Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, which initially broke the story, reported that at least 180 journalists worldwide were also targeted.

In May 2019, 1,400 smartphone users were similarly targeted using Pegasus spyware, including government officials, diplomats, lawyers, journalists, political dissidents and human rights defenders in twenty different countries. At the time, it was discovered the surveillance software could be installed on iPhones and Android smartphones by ringing the targeted user via the WhatsApp messaging application. An article published in the Financial Times noted that the spyware could “be transmitted even if users did not answer their phones”, the malicious calls simply disappearing from the call logs. Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, claims to have fixed the security breach and has since launched a lawsuit against the NSO Group.

The NSO Group—which sells “cybersecurity” programs only to government agencies worldwide—reportedly has contracts with at least 60 intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies in 40 different countries. Founded in 2010, the company is one of the many cybersecurity firms in Israel established by former members of the Zionist state’s military intelligence spy corps. The largest unit in the Israeli military, Unit 8200 (also known as the ISNU) is considered the equivalent of the US National Security Agency.

Israeli anti-occupation group Who Profits noted in its June 2021 report Repression Diplomacy: The Israeli Cyber-Industry that Unit 8200 is responsible for collecting 90 percent of all intelligence in Israel and is involved in all the major operations run by Mossad and Shin Bet, respectively the state’s external spy agency and internal secret police.

According to the Who Profits report, a central activity of Israel’s military intelligence unit has been maintaining “military and political control over the occupied Palestinian population”. This was confirmed in 2014, when a group of 43 serving and former soldiers from Unit 8200 published an open letter in Israel’s largest circulation newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. The soldiers’ letter confirmed that “intelligence [gathering] is an integral part of Israel’s military occupation over the territories”.

According to the letter, information gathered by Unit 8200 is used “for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators and driving parts of Palestinian society against itself”, preventing Palestinians from leading “normal lives” and working to “fuel more violence”. According to one of the signatories, Unit 8200’s actions are reminiscent of the surveillance activities carried out by the Stasi in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Four years after the publication of the letter, Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz reported that Israel has continued to carry out its cyber-surveillance operations against Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories, including “monitoring the media, social media and the population as a whole”. Haaretz noted that the operation was “among the largest of its kind in the world”.

While Israel has long been a leading arms dealer, selling weaponry it advertises as being “field-tested” and “battle-proven” against Palestinians, it is also a leading exporter of surveillance technology similarly tested against Palestinians. Writing for the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs last year, Jonathan Cook, an award-winning British journalist and author living in Israel, noted that the country’s trade in military hardware is now “being overshadowed by a market for belligerent software: tools for waging cyber warfare”.

According to Cook, like the military hardware being exported by the Israeli state, the “digital age weapons developed by Israel to oppress Palestinians” are now also being used “against Western populations who have long taken their freedoms for granted”. Cook notes, however, that the Israeli state “keep[s] its fingerprints off much of the new Big Brother technology” by outsourcing the additional developments to the military graduates of Unit 8200 such as the NSO Group but “implicitly” approves the actions of these spyware firms by granting them export licences.

In 2019, Israeli civil rights groups launched a legal challenge to demand that the Israeli Defence Ministry cancel the NSO’s export licence. Danna Ingelton, deputy director of Amnesty International’s technology division, whose own staff had been targeted by Pegasus spyware, told the Financial Times that “the Israeli Ministry of Defence has ignored mounting evidence linking NSO Group to attacks on human rights defenders”, including selling its products “to governments who are known for outrageous human rights abuses, giving them the tools to track activists and critics”.

While Israel has been forced in the wake of the Macron scandal to “investigate” the NSO Group, it is unlikely much will change. The Israeli state and its security elite will continue to cash in on the international market for cyber warfare, while continuing to “battle test” their surveillance products on the Palestinian population they continue to oppress.

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