Analysis |

Who Will Stop Israeli Spyware Firm NSO's Runaway Train?

Evidence has mounted for years that NSO has sold its tools to dictatorships that used it to track journalists, rights activists and dissidents – some of whom were tortured or murdered

Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv
A sign in NSO Group's offices, 2014.
A sign in NSO Group's offices, 2014.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv

The case of Omar Radi, the Moroccan journalist who apparently was subject to an espionage campaign by the Moroccan government via the Herzliya-based NSO’s cyber hacking tools, is the latest in a long list of similar cases. Over the years, evidence has built up that NSO has sold its cyber weapon to dictatorships that use it to spy on journalists, rights activists and dissidents. Some of them were jailed and tortured; some were murdered.

NSO says it helps prevent terror. But even if its cyber weapon sometimes helps stop terrorists or prevents serious crime, you don’t stop crime with crime. The presumption of innocence matters, and terror by a government against its citizens is still terror.

The evidence appears to indicate that NSO has sold its services to countries including the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Mexico (the world leader in murdered journalists) and Ghana (negotiations with which did not develop into a deal. Morocco suppresses protesters and human rights activists and persecutes journalists. It has shut down a number of media outlets over the years that are critical of the government, makes false accusations against activists and uses media outlets associated with the regime to badmouth the government’s critics.

All this is common knowledge, but it did not stop NSO from allegedly selling its services to Rabat. For years NSO has promised only to help the world and not, heaven forbid, to hurt human rights activists. The company has an “ethics committee” that ostensibly vets deals, and as of late 2019 it promised to uphold higher standards in keeping with United Nations guidelines for responsible business.

Omar Radi, a Moroccan journalist under surveillance

To date, there doesn’t seem to be any substance behind NSO’s high words, and not much should be expected – ultimately this is a for-profit company that puts money above all. As Radi said, “They will make [an] ethical commitment and that kind of thing, they will swear all their gods to say ‘We no longer do that, we do not hurt.’ And then they will still sell and they will continue to sell.”

Ostensibly, it’s Israel that should regulate. The Defense Ministry has a regulator to oversee defense exports. It grants the export licenses to cyber weapons companies including NSO. In the past, the Defense Ministry stated to Haaretz, “The regulatory policy is examined frequently in keeping with various considerations, including preserving human rights.”

But judging by the evidence, from Bangladesh in the east to Honduras in the west, moral considerations aren’t really a consideration, or they are last on the ministry bureaucrats’ list. But this is not the worst. Defense sales are part of Israel’s diplomatic negotiations. When Israel sells weapons to Morocco or to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, it obtains diplomatic quiet and weakens international criticism of the occupation. Thus, one crime justifies another. This is one of the motivations for approving these dark deals.

So who will stop this pattern? For lack of a leader, all responsibility falls on rights organization and journalists living under dictatorships.

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