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Facebook under fire for using Israelis from notorious unit to spy on users 

December 16, 2020 at 2:24 pm

Social media applications, 7 April 2020 [Mehmet Ali Özcan/Anadolu Agency]

Facebook has apparently been using a company founded by veterans of a secret cyber intel group within the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) to spy on users and destroy competition. Details have been reported by Haaretz, which cites the findings of a US lawsuit against the social media giant.

The scandal involves Israeli firm Onavo which was bought by Facebook in 2013. The suit filed by the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC) a few days ago claims that Onavo’s technology played a central role in Facebook’s efforts to thwart its competitors.

Describing Onavo as a “user surveillance company”, the FTC claimed that Facebook used the Israeli firm to learn about rival apps and determine which could be a potential threat to be neutralised before they get too influential. Concerns have been raised about how Facebook went about this, and questions are being asked about online security and the unregulated manner in which data is being gathered.

According to Haaretz, in 2018 Apple removed Onavo Protect – a free “secure connection” app that people could use while using Facebook – from its online store. It was discovered that the Onavo app violated Apple’s privacy policy by collecting information about iPhone users and their online usage of apps that don’t belong to Facebook.

In the same year the British parliament published internal documents which showed that Facebook was monitoring users as a means of dealing with potential rivals. The documents included 200 pages of email correspondence dated 2012 to 2015 in which senior Facebook officials discussed how to conceal Onavo’s ability to gather information about unwitting users.

READ: Amnesty demands Israel prevent NSO from exporting spyware to rights abusers

Haaretz revealed that the owners of Onavo are veterans of the IDF’s cyber intel Unit 8200. A report in the Financial Times describes Unit 8200 as “a high-tech incubator that trains some of Israel’s smartest young people but effectively excludes minority Arabs — 20 per cent of Israel’s population — because so few do military service, which is compulsory for Jewish Israelis.”

Recruits to the unit “snoop on Palestinians living under Israeli occupation in the West Bank or naval and air blockade in the Gaza Strip.” The FT report also cited Israeli sources saying that members of the unit used “coercive spying tactics” on innocent Palestinians, for the collection of embarrassing sexual, financial or other information. Such tactics were compared to those of the Stasi secret police in East Germany. According to the FT, this came as a shock to whistle-blowers from the unit.

America’s TechCrunch newspaper reported today that Australia’s Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) is suing Facebook over its use of Onavo in 2016 and 2017 to spy on users for commercial purposes. Commenting on the role played by the Israeli firm, ACCC chair Rod Sims said that, “Through Onavo Protect, Facebook was collecting and using the very detailed and valuable personal activity data of thousands of Australian consumers for its own commercial purposes, which we believe is completely contrary to the promise of protection, secrecy and privacy that was central to Facebook’s promotion of this app.”

READ: WhatsApp sues Israel’s NSO for allegedly helping spies hack phones around the world

Israel pass Facebook Bill which will authorise deleting content considered incitement - Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]

Israel pass Facebook Bill which will authorise deleting content considered incitement – Cartoon [Sabaaneh/MiddleEastMonitor]