The latest alarming chapter in the never-ending roller-coaster world tour of NSO, the most controversial and notorious global offensive cyber company, should not come as a surprise.
It now turns out that Israel’s police force, using NSO’s Pegasus spyware and without warrants, monitored Israelis, including civil society activists and protestors against former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The police denies the allegations exposed by business daily "Calcalist" and claims that each bugging case was approved by a judge.
These new revelations are just a natural process of Israel’s crippled and eroded democracy, which is controlled by a powerful military-security apparatus.
Six years ago, the first reports emerged around the world regarding a mysterious, unruly, Israeli company which was involved in dirty spying, violations of human rights and invasions of privacy. The Israeli government turned a blind eye and the complacent Israeli public shrugged its shoulders.
Then came the second wave, about the use of NSO's software against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank who were targeted by the Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security service. Still, Israelis didn’t care. Most of them are used to living in peace alongside the occupation, which will mark its 55th anniversary this year. For many, its use against Palestinians was more than acceptable.
Now we reach the third phase, its most troubling from a narrow Israeli perspective. This is the revelation that the sophisticated Pegasus tool, which is capable of remotely hacking iPhones and android phones, was used by the police not only to fight crime but also to spy on innocent Israeli citizens, Jews and Arabs alike.
In the 19th century the U.S. and other western powers pursued their foreign policy objectives through gunboat diplomacy. Israel, in the 20th and 21th centuries, has advanced its international relations with what we can call "espionage diplomacy."
- NSO File: A Complete List of Individuals Targeted With Pegasus Spyware
- Police Use NSO's Pegasus to Spy on Israelis Without Warrant, Report Says
- Israel's Shame: NSO and Pegasus, a Danger to Democracy Around the World
- Citizen Lab vs. NSO: The Institute Taking Down Israel's 'Mercenary Spyware' Firms
NSO, now blacklisted by the U.S., was encouraged by the Israeli government to sell its product to countries around the world. As leverage to persuade foreign governments to either establish diplomatic relations or a sweetener to upgrade them, the Ministry of Defense and the Mossad, Israel's prestigious foreign security service, greenlighted the private firm to sell Pegasus.
And it worked. Two years ago, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco inaugurated diplomatic relations with Israel and opened embassies in Tel Aviv. Thanks to NSO’s sinister cyber toy, Saudi Arabia enhanced its clandestine ties with the Jewish state. Many other governments were grateful for Israel’s secret provision of Pegasus and reciprocated, for example, by supporting Israel in the UN or in other international fora.
Officially, the license and contracts to sell Pegasus specified that the tool would be used only by police forces and security services to fight high level terrorism and crime. But in reality, the Israel defense establishment knew very well the risks of selling such intrusive equipment to dubious regimes, to dictators or even to illiberal democratic governments with populist and right-wing tendencies such as India, Poland, Slovenia and Hungary, to name just a few.
The defense ministry and the Mossad simply turned a blind eye when their clients – presidents, prime ministers, sheikhs and kings who control police forces, security services and other law enforcement agencies – violated the contracts and licenses. They used Pegasus to spy on, invade the privacy of and consequentially intimidate dissidents, political rivals, human rights activists and, in the case of the UAE, even members of their own royal family.
It wasn't coincidence that the sales of Pegasus soared over the last decade during the period Netanyahu and his right-wing government ruled the country. Pegasus was a useful platform for the ever-transactional Netanyahu to enhance his personal and bilateral ties with leaders like Modi of India and Orban of Hungary.
But it is wrong to assume that NSO is a rare example. First of all, alongside NSO, several other similar Israeli companies like Cellebrite and Candiru developed and sold to foreign customers no less intrusive poisonous tools, again under defense ministry instructions and licensing. Unlike NSO, which eagerly promoted its success, these two companies preferred to operate under the radar. It is easier and more convenient to now turn NSO into the sole scapegoat of all the evils and wrong-doing of the Israeli system.
Israel's high-tech and cyber firms are a product of the success of its military and intelligence agencies in fighting enemies such as Iran and terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah. However, the graduates of elite IDF technology units like 8200, the Mossad or the Shin Bet domestic security service, exfiltrated the spycraft and know-how they’d learnt from the military to the civil society sphere. Sometimes they even have used the same methods.
The cyber industry which is now in eye of the storm is just the latest layer in Israel’s military-security history. Almost since independence in 1948, Israel realized it needed to develop a strong scientific, technological, nuclear and military infrastructure in order to survive in the wild and hostile Middle East environment.
Towards that purpose, Israel governments encouraged its security and military establishment to be strong and innovative and showered it with money. From modest beginnings, Israel turned into a powerhouse of the military-security complex. It is now ranked among the top ten arms suppliers in the world.
The weapons trade is nowadays solely controlled by the Ministry of Defense. Other (potentially more nuanced) government departments such as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs have very little say in deciding what to sell and to whom. This has been equally the case under right-wing and left-wing governments. Political and ideological orientation played no role in the Israeli rush to develop and sell weapons around the globe.
The free hand given by consecutive governments to sell weapons and technology – from guns and ammunition to missiles, planes, ships, tanks and intelligence technology – turned the defense establishment into a state with a state. Israel’s security apparatus is the tail wagging the dog.
NSO is just a symptom of much malicious and widespread disease. It is a manifestation of an out-of-control culture which incubates arms dealers, security contractors and technological wizards, worships them and turns them into untouchable heroes for the homeland.
The lack of sufficient and proper legal and parliamentary supervision invites the impunity of almost feral bodies from the defense ministry to the police and secret services who have abandoned, and been abandoned by, norms and the rule of law.
Despite the evils of the long occupation, Israel is not the proto-fascist country its opponents portray it as. There are still plenty of conscientious people and organizations who cherish morality and ethical values. But in recent years there have been clear warning signs about how Israeli democracy is slowly deteriorating.
It is not late to stop the slide, but it requires, urgently, the state’s democratic institutions to take back their authority by curtailing the power of Israel’s security and military complex.