Privacy advocates warn that this new marketplace between private Israeli firms and powerful government agencies is creating an environment where repressive regimes can purchase powerful spyware and turn it loose on anyone, anywhere they want, threatening free speech and dissent around the world.“These are technologies that are developed in one of the world’s most advanced cyberpowers with some of the most extensive surveillance capabilities, and has a [Palestinian] population to practice these capabilities on,” said Edin Omanovic, who leads the state surveillance program for Privacy International, a watchdog group. “They then send these tools to countries that lack rule of law. It’s essentially being used purposefully to target human rights defenders and dissidents.”
“The guilt is killing me. Maybe they were listening to me and Jamal.”
“The Wild West”
This is no accident. It’s the result of the synergy between the Israeli military and private industry, and Israel’s decades of experience building up surveillance capabilities to keep a close watch on the Palestinians it occupies and neighboring hostile states.
“It’s essentially being used purposefully to target human rights defenders and dissidents.”
That wasn’t the only time the NSO Group reportedly sold its software to the United Arab Emirates, a country that doesn’t tolerate any dissent. An NSO Group affiliate, Circles Technologies, assisted an Emirati security agent in hacking the phone of Abdulaziz Alkhamis, a journalist who frequently writes about Gulf politics, according to emails published in a lawsuit against NSO Group that VICE News reviewed. (The New York Times first reported on the emails.)Citizen Lab has also found two operators who appear to be using NSO's software in the UAE, one in Bahrain and one in Saudi Arabia.In addition to targeting Abdulaziz, the Saudi operator of “Pegasus” went after a staffer at Amnesty International who advocated for Saudi women locked up over their activism, and Saudi rights advocate Yahya Assiri, according to Citizen Lab.Motherboard: They Got 'Everything': Inside a Demo of NSO Group's Powerful iPhone Malware“[NSO] has become the go-to company for all the regimes that violate human rights,” said Mazen Masri, who's part of a legal team that sued NSO Group in Israel and Cyprus (where an NSO affiliate is registered) over alleged privacy violations. “If these regimes are willing to pay the price, they can get the system and they can spy on almost anybody with a smartphone.”But NSO Group isn't alone in pushing its products to Gulf Arab states.
“Like my mother said: The Unit is the biggest high-tech company in Israel.”
Verint Systems, another Israeli company, also sold surveillance technology to Bahrain, the small Gulf state whose Sunni leaders rule its majority-Shi’a population with an iron first, according to Haaretz. The Israeli paper reported that Verint sold Bahrain systems “typically used by monitoring centers” and “another system used for collecting information from social networks.” Israelis have traveled to the country to train Bahraini security agents in how to use the surveillance system, Haaretz reported.Israel’s Ministry of Defense, which licenses the export of surveillance tools, did not return requests for comment from VICE News. Neither did the U.S embassies of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. NSO Group, Verint Systems and Cellebrite also did not return requests for comment.The sophisticated nature of this technology, and the secret sales between private companies and foreign governments, make it next to impossible for researchers to definitively pin the use of this spyware on a specific state, but the impact is clear. Human rights defenders warn that these surveillance companies have created a world where authoritarian leaders can reach far beyond their borders to track and terrorize dissidents.“It’s the Wild West,” said Danna Ingleton, research and policy adviser at Amnesty International. “The opaque nature of the industry denies targets access to law and justice. The implications are indeed dire. It quiets civil society and threatens the privacy rights of us all.”————————Cover: A man takes a photo as the sun rises over the city skyline from a balcony on the 42nd floor of a hotel on a foggy day in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Saturday, Dec. 31, 2016.
“The implications are indeed dire. It quiets civil society and threatens the privacy rights of us all.”