‘No Tenders in War’: Defense Minister Insists on Team-up With NSO to Battle Coronavirus

Naftali Bennett's party member Ayelet Shaked, who is close friends with NSO's president, backs defense minister’s initiative to cooperate with controversial company

Noa Landau
Nir Gontarz
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Defense Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 2020.
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 2020. Credit: Emil Salman
Noa Landau
Nir Gontarz

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett has no intention of backing off of his plan to partner with controversial Israeli spyware firm NSO in creating a system grading citizens on their likelihood of spreading the coronavirus, despite the Justice Ministry’s reservations.

Earlier on Wednesday, the Justice Ministry said it was an unusual step as it hands private information about citizens to a private company. The problem is even greater given that the Shin Bet was allowed to track citizens only by invoking emergency regulations.

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Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

The Shin Bet’s legal department also expressed reservations about sharing information with a private company. Moreover, the Health Ministry has so far not indicated any need for such measures.

Bennett recruited NSO Group, which has been accused of involvement in human rights violations, to build the rating system for citizens based on data collected by the Shin Bet security agency.

Responding to a query from Haaretz, Bennett confirmed that he has “a general familiarity” with NSO Group’s president, Shiri Dolev. When asked whether such a project should require issuing a tender, Bennett replied: “There are no tenders in war.”

Dolev is a close friend of Bennett’s party colleague Ayelet Shaked, who backed the initiative in the Knesset without mentioning the connection. She appeared alongside Shaked on a TV program in 2017, where she was introduced as her best friend.

In a session of the Knesset’s Secret Service Subcommittee on Tuesday, Shaked called on Gabi Ashkenazi, the committee’s chairman, and Sigal Sadetsky, head of public health services in the Health Ministry, to hold a decision on implementing Bennett’s initiative, saying it “could help the Health Ministry very much.”

Responding to Haaretz’s request for comment, Bennett’s office said the defense minister “has only a general acquaintance with Shiri Dolev. The minister encourages any group, public or private, to take part in the national fight against the coronavirus, and to continue doing so with all its might.”

Shaked’s office said that “Israel best brains, in all fields, have enlisted to battle the coronavirus and save lives. Shiri Dolev and Ayelet Shaked have been friends for many years, which is a well-known fact, and they even gave interviews about their friendship.”

The statement added that “A remark during a Knesset committee meeting doesn’t require proper disclosure. Unfortunately, Haaretz chooses to cling onto petty insignificant things instead of focusing and mainly encouraging Israeli high-tech firms to join live-saving efforts.”

When the government approved that confirmed and suspected COVID-19 patients' cellphones will be monitored by the Shin Bet security service and police, Shaked expressed her reservations.

“The regulations have gone too far and require tight supervision and it’s important to maintain a functioning system of checks and balances,” Shaked said at the time.

But the Knesset did demand to limit the number of officials exposed to the data collected by the Shin Bet, which Shaked is now pushing to transfer to a private company.

As reported in Haaretz on Tuesday, Bennett’s project has met resistance in the Justice Ministry, where there is concern about the legal issues stemming from providing citizens’ personal information to a private company, as well as doubt that this system would be better than the tools already at authorities’ disposal.

Bennett rejected the criticism in a press conference, saying: “We are at war...I don’t want to give up any tool that can help the Israeli people.”

Recent years have seen allegations that software created by NSO Group has been used to track dissidents in various countries, and it has been tied to the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

According to recent reports, the FBI has opened an investigation into the company in connection with possible hacks of Americans’ phones. Facebook has sued the company over suspicions that it broke into WhatsApp accounts. The company has denied all these accusations, saying its products are meant for fighting crime and terrorism.

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