Analysis |

Latest NSO Scandal Isn't Necessarily Bad for Israeli Spyware Maker

U.S. sanctions and other factor may doom NSO, but this week showed how much information it still holds ■ What's missing from the submarine discourse

Amos Harel
Amos Harel
A smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group.
A smartphone showing the website of Israel's NSO Group.Credit: JOEL SAGET / AFP
Amos Harel
Amos Harel

It took only a few hours for the line of defense offered by the Israel Police in the NSO affair to be completely revised. The initial police response to the investigative report, which detailed the use of offensive programming to surveil civilians, denied the story outright. But not long after Tuesday’s publication of Tomer Ganon’s report in the financial newspaper Calcalist, the tone and the rationale of the police’s argument changed. The new response: What do you want? For us not to use the finest technology in order to keep tabs on criminals?

The police are now admitting that they used Israeli-made spyware, apparently an early and limited version of Pegasus, which is NSO’s flagship product. They’re only claiming now that it was utilized against offenders and that “innocent citizens have nothing to be worried about.” In addition, the police are vehemently denying two central allegations in the report: that the spyware was used to surveil the Black Flags protest movement, which demanded the resignation of the former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; and that the surveillance was carried out without requisite court orders.

Iran’s bizarre but worrying espionage campaign against Israel: LISTEN

The innocent citizens have no reason to be calm. Public Security Minister Omer Bar Lev asked for explanations from police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, and was told that most of the cases cited in the report were checked and the allegations are unfounded. But an examination of the credibility of police statements and internal investigations – from the Umm al-Hiran incident, through the investigation of Nir Hefetz, to the violence used against demonstrators outside the prime minister’s residence and against protesters in Mea She’arim and Sheikh Jarrah – it’s clear the severity of the accusations about the use of the spyware calls for an independent, external investigation.

Given the ease with which the courts accede to police requests to implement investigative actions, questions do in fact arise about Ganon’s claim that the breach of the cellphones was implemented without court orders. But even if authorizations were indeed given, as the police maintain (though that requires proof), it’s still necessary to clarify what the judges knew and whether the police exploited a limited authorization for broader activity. The technology, which is being constantly developed, is far outpacing the legislation and the judicial response in this sphere.

The existing laws refer to authorization for hooking into landline telecom boxes, or to peruse email. They don’t provide an adequate response to spyware which effectively replicates the mobile phone and is capable of operating in its place, without the owner’s knowledge. The suspicion is that this gray area was exploited very well and that the police systematically fudged the judges to ensure they received permits without betraying their full intentions and capabilities. This would appear to be a deliberate practice that worked.

Just the revelations that the police don’t deny obligate a public discussion in themselves. The first spyware was developed in the technological units of the security forces to monitor security threats and thwart terrorism. When those capabilities seeped into the private sector, the security hierarchy said reassuringly that everything was under control: The spyware was only sold with full state authorization and was intended solely to assist democratic regimes to do battle against terrorism and serious crime. But the investigative reports in the past few years about the use of Pegasus worldwide revealed that the actual situation was far different. The Israeli defense establishment had indeed authorized the transactions, but in some cases the use of the spyware was far-reaching and morally reprehensible.

Now it turns out that the software was used to spy on Israeli citizens for reasons unrelated to security. The foreseeable has come to pass: Invasive technologies that were used to gather intelligence about Iran and Hezbollah, and afterward against Palestinians in the territories, ultimately found their way into the cellphones of Israelis (some of whom, it’s alleged, were organizers of political protests).

Prof. Karine Nohan, a researcher of society and technology at Reichman University in Herzliya, tells Haaretz that if the police surveilled demonstrators, no matter what means they used, a black flag of illegality flies over the act. The latest revelation by Ganon, on Thursday – that the police used Pegasus to hack into the phone of a social activist and collected information about his sex life – reinforces the suspicion that deep, broad rot is present here.

NSO itself could come to the end of its road this year. Under the pressure of the American sanctions, the departure of employees and complex economic circumstances, it’s not clear whether the company will survive. To date, the government has not extended true help to NSO. But the latest news stories don’t necessarily hurt the company. On the contrary: they hint that NSO and its employees still possess considerable information about activity that was carried out with its software. It’s doubtful whether everything that was done was legal and totally kosher – and those actions have implications for the state, because some of them were executed by its authorities (such as the police) and others within the framework of international transactions that it approved.

On Tuesday evening, the police dispatched officers to the television stations in a desperate attempt to put out the blaze. On Channel 12 News an uptight, stammering brigadier general explained to anchorwoman Yonit Levy that he was “broadcasting an absolute message of reassurance to the public,” and then he choked completely. “You’re trying,” the interviewer said, and sounded no more convinced than the viewers at home.

IDF in a nutshell

The fatal shooting accident last week in the Israel Defense Forces’ commando brigade, in which two officers of the Egoz unit were killed, is still being investigated by the army along three different channels. An expert committee headed by Maj. Gen. (res.) Noam Tibon is concentrating the field investigation; an internal inquiry is underway in the unit itself; and the Military Police are carrying out a criminal investigation which could give rise to legal procedures.

Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi requested conclusions from Tibon within two weeks, which could stretch out another week. The Military Police investigation will go on far longer. The information accumulating in the investigations will probably paint an unflattering picture of the situation in the IDF’s ground forces, and in particular in some of the elite units. The accident was a convergence of many of the troubles from which the IDF is suffering, in a nutshell.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi (left), Shin Bet director Ronen Bar (right) and senior military commanders at the scene of the shooting attack near Homesh, on Friday.Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Kochavi visited the unit this week for the second time since the accident. He met separately with Y., the company commander who wasn’t hurt (and was alongside the two who were killed, Maj. Ofek Aharon and Maj. Itamar Elharar), and with N., the team commander who shot them by mistake. The chief of staff came away with the impression that this is a stable unit that has not had the wind knocked out of it. Its personnel, he believes, understand well what happened and acknowledge that the accident was caused by an accumulation of mistakes and hitches. In conversations with the officers and the soldiers, he tried to set forth his expectations: a forward-leaning approach, but one that doesn’t compromise on professionalism and demands a high level of planning, coordination and avoidance of security dangers.

Since the accident, an extensive public discussion has developed concerning the operational and organizational culture in the IDF’s infantry units and especially in the commando brigade. Combat troops and their parents told journalists about many cases of near accidents and about unplanned, uncoordinated pursuits of suspected weapons thieves in firing zones. What’s emerging in the current case is that the officers weren’t so much looking for the night vision equipment that had been lost, but mainly hoped to catch Bedouin thieves who in their estimation were behind a previous theft. They did so without prior coordination within the unit, without the two forces (the team commander and the company commanders) taking radio equipment and without deploying for possible hitches.

Kochavi is familiar with the parents’ contentions about the brigades, and is aware of the unusual accumulation of accidents and snafus in the commando brigade, including the death of a soldier from the Duvdevan unit while playing with a weapon and the serious injury sustained by a soldier from the Maglan unit in a different accident. Tibon, who is being aided by personnel from the IDF’s comptroller unit, was asked to conduct a comparative examination of the culture in the brigades. The aim: to find out if there is a singular phenomenon in the commandos or a problem that is rampant throughout the entire infantry. At the same time, the army notes that the past decade saw a constant decline in the scope of accidents of all sorts.

The General Staff has reservations about the text of a letter that Col. Yehuda Vach, the commander of the IDF’s officers school, sent to the cadets after the accident. Vach emphasized the heroism of those who were killed and maintained that they fell as part of the struggle for the Jewish people’s sovereignty in its land. His superiors found an imbalance in what he wrote: the praise for the fallen officers should not have been set forth within a framework of an unplanned pursuit of thieves as a heroic and patriotic operation. The letter said nothing about the need to learn from the mistakes that led to the tragic result and to improve the army’s performance henceforth. This message was conveyed to the officers school commander face-to-face, but without an official reprimand being entered in his file.

In the past few years there have been a number of cases in which bereaved families clashed with the army, venting their anger at conclusions reached in investigations which in their view covered up mistakes of senior officers and did not get to the truth of what happened. The present investigation is liable to end with an opposite result: The conclusions about responsibility for the disaster will be painful, and the families will prefer to view the event through the prism of Colonel Vach.

Strategic waters

Once again, the purchase of the navy’s next submarines found a place on the public agenda when a report in TheMarker revealed that the cost of the three subs would be 1.2 billion euros (about 4.25 billion shekels) more than planned. Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, hurled accusations at each other. And dozens of retired officers are continuing their vigorous campaign to obligate the government to fulfill its commitments and establish a state commission of inquiry into the affair of the submarines and the other vessels.

An Israeli Navy submarine, in 2019. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit

Israel increasingly perceives the maritime area as a strategic arena. The natural gas reserves deep below the sea, the agreement to build an oil pipeline from the United Arab Emirates, the need to secure the country’s maritime supply lanes and the Iranian attacks on Israeli-owned ships in the Persian Gulf are all central issues with implications for Israel’s national security.

What’s almost completely lacking here is a public strategic discussion about the maritime arena. The navy engages in this in limited fashion; the National Security Council apparently has a different order of priorities. The vacuum is partially filled by the Maritime Policy and Strategy Research Center in the University of Haifa. The center’s head, Prof. Shaul Chorev, this month published the annual situation appraisal relating to the maritime zone.

Chorev, who held various senior posts in the IDF and the defense establishment, is cautiously optimistic in regard to the economic context. Despite the coronavirus crisis, he says, Israel’s citizens barely experienced supply difficulties via the country’s ports. Within about two years, he writes, four advanced ports will be operational in Israel (Ashdod, Eilat and two in Haifa) and will compete with one another, thereby improving the level of service and of prices.

The report contains a series of policy recommendations for the government and the navy. The center’s experts recommend that Israel formulate a comprehensive maritime strategy for Israel, in the light of the far-reaching changes that are occurring in the Mediterranean and in the Red Sea. Indeed, these changes necessitate a redefinition of the Israeli interests in the region, the report asserts.

The authors point to potential dangers for Israel: an increased Russian presence, a possible rise in cases of friction with the Turkish navy and the incidents with Iran and its cohorts in the region. In their view, Israel’s deployment to secure the essential sea traffic to and from Israel should focus on protecting ships under Israeli control and on Israeli crews. The recent events in the Gulf – where ships under partial Israeli ownership were attacked, as were tankers anchored in UAE and Saudi ports – signal a shift in the threat posed by Iran, which in the experts’ view requires a redeployment by Israel, including the possibility of attacks that will take place closer to home.

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