Israel Issues Stricter, but Still Vague, Guidelines for Cybertech Exports After NSO Scandal

While defense officials have said time and again Israel only allows the export of cybertech to governments, rather than private clients, this is the first time such claims are backed by actions

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A smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group.
A smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group.Credit: JOEL SAGET - AFP

Israel said on Monday that countries interested in buying its cybertech would have to commit to using them to prevent only a limited list of terrorist acts and serious crimes.

Israeli defense officials have said in the past that Israel only allows the export of cybertech for the usage of governments and intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime. However, this is the first time such claims are backed.

The move announced by Israel's Defense Ministry was the latest step in enhancing its oversight following concern over possible abuses abroad of a hacking tool sold by Israeli firms like NSO Group.

Some of the definitions of crime stated in the new guidelines are still vague. Thus, it is not clear how Israel is going to enforce cases of abuse of the exported software.

Human rights group Amnesty criticized the ministry's announcement and said that the declaration "places the responsibility on cyber companies and the countries that are their customers and contradicts past claims by the ministry."

An updated certificate to be signed by purchasing countries lists in detail what qualifies as "terrorist acts" – like attacks on people, public facilities, seizures of aircraft, the release of dangerous substances – as well as "serious crimes" referring to those that warrant imprisonment of six years or more.

"The definitions for serious crimes and terrorist acts have been sharpened in order to prevent the blurring of boundaries in this context," the Defense Ministry said.

It also spells out uses that are prohibited – like targeting people for political affiliation or applications that break that country's privacy laws – for which Israel could revoke licenses and the systems be shut down.

Israel has been under pressure to rein in exports of spyware since July, when a group of international news organizations reported that NSO's Pegasus tool had been used to hack into phones of journalists, government officials and rights activists in several countries.

Those reports prompted Israel to review the cyber export policy administered by the Defense Ministry.

Last week, Apple Inc iPhones of at least nine U.S. State Department employees were hacked by an unknown assailant using sophisticated spyware developed by the Israel-based NSO Group, according to four people familiar with the matter.

Last month, Israel was reported to have slashed the list of countries eligible to buy its cyber technologies after the U.S. blacklisted two companies.

NSO has denied any wrongdoing, saying it sells its tools only to governments and law enforcement agencies and has safeguards in place to prevent misuse.

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