Substantial Majority of Jewish Israelis Feel Unregulated Cyberarm Sales Are ‘Immoral’

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A protest outside NSO Group's offices in Herzliya, last month.
A protest outside NSO Group's offices in Herzliya, last month.Credit: Nir Elias / Reuters

A substantial majority of Jewish Israelis say that sales of Israeli offensive cyberarms to anyone willing to pay, including countries with poor human rights records is “immoral,” according to a new poll published Monday.

The survey, conducted by Amnesty International in the wake of the global Project Pegasus investigation into the misuse of Israeli-made spyware by clients of the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group, found that some 63.8 percent of respondents believe that unregulated cyberarms sales were unethical, with only 5.4 percent believing that they are ethical. An additional 25.4 percent of respondents believe that such sales are not a matter of ethics, but rather of interests and business. In a similar vein, some 51.5 percent of all respondents believe that regulatory oversight of such sales should be beefed up, with only 6.2 percent of them saying that regulatory oversight should be reduced. 

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Project Pegasus, a global investigation led by the Paris-based nonprofit Forbidden Stories together with Amnesty International and a consortium of journalists from 17 news outlets across the world – including Haaretz – was based on leaked data and revealed a long list of high-profile individuals who were selected as possible targets for the firm’s Pegasus spyware by NSO’s clients.

The investigation shook up the world when it revealed that scores of journalists, human rights activists and world leaders were potentially selected as targets, including French President Emmanuel Macron and even the Dalai Lama. The revelations sparked a diplomatic crisis between Israel and France, which is fuming over the alleged misuse of the Israeli-made spyware technology at the hands of the Moroccan intelligence service, one of NSO’s clients. 

Since its publication, some of the investigation’s claims were confirmed with French intel, for example, confirming that at least three French journalists’ phones were actually targeted. Amnesty also confirmed that a famous British human rights activist and others were also actually targeted.  

Haaretz contributed to the project by highlighting the role of cyberarm sales in Israel’s diplomacy, with many of the client countries being those visited and courted by former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent years

Calls for reform of Israel’s oversight of its cyberarms exports have been sounded in the wake of the investigation’s publication last month.  

Moral arms

In the Amnesty poll published Monday, the findings – based on a survey of 501 Jewish Israelis – reaffirmed those of a previous poll conducted by Amnesty in 2019 about the unregulated sale of Israeli arms generally. Thus, Amnesty postulated, the majority of Israelis seem to view cyberarms as no different from firearms or any other weaponry and support increased regulation on such exports.

The poll asked respondents to define themselves as secular, religious, Masorti (“traditional”) or Haredi (ultra-Orthodox), and to relate to three questions: How the Israeli cyber industry effects Israel’s interests and image in the world, how adequate Israel’s regulatory oversight of the cyber industry is, and whether it’s ethical for Israeli cyber firms to sell their software to anyone willing to pay, including regimes that commit human rights abuses.

Perhaps the most interesting finding of the survey was that of all the groups, those who defined themselves as religious Jewish Israelis believe that cyberarms sales to anyone willing to pay, including regimes with poor human rights records, are unethical – more so than secular Jewish Israelis and their non-secular (Masorti or Haredi) counterparts. The finding is surprising considering that generally, so-called religious Jews tend to veer to the right, supporting parties and seemingly jingoistic policies more than their secular counterparts. In fact, some 80.6 percent of religious Jews polled said it was a moral failure, while roughly 64-67 percent of each of the other three groups held the same position, excluding respondents who said they have no opinion or knowledge on the matter. 

On the question of regulation, however, among all the groups polled, those self-defining as Masorti most strongly believe that more oversight is needed, with 66.9 percent of them believing such to be the case, as compared to 62.9 percent of secular Jews and 35.7 percent of Haredi Jews, again excluding those who responded that they did not know enough to say. 

Whereas a clear majority of respondents deem unregulated cyber sales to be immoral and are in favor of more regulatory oversight, the poll revealed a split among Jewish Israelis regarding the value of the publication of investigations into abuse of Israeli-made cyberarms: 38.3 percent said such revelations help Israel, and 31.9 percent said it causes damage to Israel’s reputation and interests.

The most significant split among the denominations and within them was revealed perhaps with respect to the perceived impact of the Israeli cyber industry on Israel’s image in the world. Religious and Haredi respondents most strongly believe that Israeli cyber has helped Israel’s standing in the world (roughly 56-61 percent), as compared to secular and Masorti respondents (roughly 31-34 percent). 

According to Moran Avital, a campaigner at Amnesty, “the findings show unequivocally that most Israelis understand and have long understood what Israel’s Defense Ministry refuses to understand: oversight of Israel’s defense exports is severely lacking, to put it mildly, and is thus a moral stain on Israel. 

“The problem is not just Israel’s cyber industry, and no small inquiry will suffice. This is a wider problem and we need to reform the entire system of arms exports and increase transparency.”

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