Editorial |

Israel Tightly Oversees the Weapons It Exports. It Should Do the Same for Spyware

Haaretz Editorial
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A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, last year.
A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, last year.Credit: AMIR COHEN/ REUTERS
Haaretz Editorial

The head of Greece’s National Intelligence Service resigned last week following yet another political scandal involving Israeli surveillance software. The agency, which answers to the Prime Minister’s Office, admitted using spyware to bug the phones of a journalist investigating corruption and of the head of the socialist PASOK opposition party. The intelligence chief (as well as a senior aide to the prime minister) resigned even though the prime minister said the surveillance was done legally. Spain’s intelligence chief also recently resigned over the hacking of senior officials’ phones, also using Israeli spyware.

Spyware is often used in compliance with local law, and it is exported in compliance with Israel’s Defense Export Control Law, which mandates approval by the Defense Ministry’s Defense Export Control Agency. Nevertheless, this process has been conducted in darkness for decades, and even the export control law failed to improve its transparency. Protected by the wall of silence erected by the Defense Ministry and other state agencies, there’s no way of knowing whether any given company is actually subject to export controls.

The Greek case is an extreme example of how an Israeli company can maneuver amid this fog. It didn’t involve a company like the NSO Group, which is subject to export controls, but rather Cytrox and its Predator spyware. Cytrox is owned by the Intellexa firm, which is owned by Tal Dilian, a former Military Intelligence commander. Dilian has dual Israeli and Maltese citizenship and doesn’t live in Israel. Both Intellexa and Cytrox are registered in several different countries, but their center of operations is in Greece.

Sources in the cyberweapons industry say Intellexa operates with no export controls. The Defense Ministry declined to respond to questions about this issue, but that doesn’t change the fact that the export control law applies to Dilian, based on Article 14: “An Israeli citizen, resident or corporation may not engage in any defense marketing activity without receiving a license to do so from the authorized agency.” Admittedly, the Defense Ministry has stepped up its supervision of cyber companies following numerous reports about abuses of NSO’s Pegasus program, but this isn’t enough. Aside from the fact that there aren’t enough inspectors – five in the ministry’s enforcement department, plus international cooperation – both the ministry and successive Israeli governments seem to be interested in promoting diplomatic relations in part by exporting spyware.

Because there is no significant difference between trade in physical weapons and in digital weapons, controls over cyberweapons exports must be improved and strengthened as if they were nonconventional weapons. Moreover, the entire industry should be subject to export control – not just companies registered in Israel, but also Israeli know-how and technology that are sold to governments or private organizations. The most effective way to do this may well be to set up an independent agency that is not part of the Defense Ministry.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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