The international investigation revealing that Israel high-tech firm NSO’s Pegasus software has been used by foreign governments to spy on journalists worldwide is just the latest warning light in a series of such revelations. These warnings should have shaken up the Israeli authorities long ago and led them to tighten supervision on the export of technological weapons.
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The investigation by Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, which was published Sunday and involved 80 journalists from 17 media outlets in 10 different countries, among them TheMarker, showed that NSO’s surveillance software, touted as an innovative tool for fighting crime and terrorism, was also used to monitor 180 journalists targeted for surveillance by their governments, some of which are far from democratic. The countries using the software this way included Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The information came to light following the leak of more than 50,000 telephone numbers that were marked as targets for company clients. One of the journalists monitored was Khadija Ismayilova of Azerbaijan, who had published an investigation into the ruling family, which made her a prime target of her own government. Her story is more optimistic than that of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered for criticizing his country’s regime and whose body was sawed into pieces, in another shocking incident in which NSO’s technology was allegedly used. And it’s not only journalists who have reportedly been subjected to such surveillance over the years, but human rights activists and political rivals.
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NSO claims that it carefully scrutinizes its clients and even has a mechanism for shutting down the software if used for improper purposes. It denies the findings of this investigative report, like the others that have preceded it, and rejects any link to Khashoggi’s murder. But this is feigned innocence, which the investigation proves has no connection to reality. The investigating journalists didn’t suffice with the leak of telephone numbers, but found the program on dozens of phones that had been infected with it.
NSO is not alone in Israel’s technological weapons industry, which may be lumped under the glittering label “high-tech” but actually manufactures deadly weapons. These firms must take responsibility not only for checking the identity of their buyers, but also how these weapons will be used. The State of Israel also bears responsibility for these dubious exports, a responsibility it has often belittled with regards to conventional weapons. Defense Minister Benny Gantz must immediately order a comprehensive investigation of what these firms are doing, and tighten the criteria for export permits.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.