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Israeli spyware is a threat to all freedoms everywhere

July 22, 2021 at 4:19 pm

This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel’s NSO Group which features ‘Pegasus’ spyware, on display on 21 July 2021 [JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images]

In 1974, Richard Nixon was impeached after being caught bugging his opponents at the Watergate Hotel in one of the twentieth century’s most explosive scandals. In comparison, the Pegasus Project — a far-reaching and shocking exposé by seventeen media outlets and Amnesty International — is a thermonuclear warhead to Nixon’s firecracker.

Pegasus is a product of an Israeli company, the NSO Group. Heads of state and opposition leaders from France to South Africa to Pakistan have the Pegasus spyware on their phones. As well as politicians, the list of 50,000 Pegasus targets provided by Amnesty include human rights defenders, activists and journalists. NSO Group’s clients range from known human rights abusers to states that regard themselves as liberal democracies.

Exploiting vulnerabilities notably in Apple iPhone’s popular iMessage app, the Pegasus spyware is deployed when a link is opened, usually inadvertently. Once Pegasus infects a phone, it is undetectable and can access messages, social media accounts, the microphone to listen in on conversations and the camera to film. It is also reported to be able to access location services and monitor your movements with pinpoint accuracy. In short, Pegasus turns the devices we rely on daily into weapons monitoring us 24/7 on behalf of whoever can pay for it.

Pegasus and NSO’s incursions make for particularly grim reading, but they are far from the only forms of intrusive surveillance we experience, and you do not have to be a campaigning journalist or politician to be a target. Intrusive technologies are usually tested on the most powerless first, before being rolled out to include the rest of us.

Read: French President’s phone number amongst list of NSO’s Pegasus targets

In the US, doorbell firm Ring has partnered with 400 police forces to provide reams of surveillance data to law enforcement agencies, in a year when US police have been under severe scrutiny for institutionalised racial violence. Microsoft’s “Offender 360” surveillance system — which is as sinister as it sounds — is one of many packages tested in America’s vast prison system.

NSO Group’s founders, meanwhile, emerged from the Israel Defence Forces’ shady Unit 8200. The infamous communications unit gained recognition after it was revealed that it was being used to spy, manipulate and blackmail Palestinians through the use of advanced technology. Palestinians were coerced into working with the Israeli state by threats to expose their sexuality or other skeletons in the closet. Israeli security companies and arms manufacturers routinely market their wares as superior due to the fact that they have been battle-tested on the brutalised populations of Gaza and the rest of the occupied Palestinian territories.

Tested on the battlefield, surveillance technologies are then most commonly deployed at the border. One of the ironies of the Pegasus scandal is that when human rights defenders or activists flee the states which spy on them and seek asylum elsewhere, they will run straight into the surveillance-industrial complex again.

Microsoft works closely with US Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) on tracking and monitoring migrants, and in so doing deepens the surveillance of the general population. So too does Thomson Reuters, providing software that enables enhanced background checks by comparing databases from healthcare providers to phone records to licence plates. These firms continued to operate with ICE while waxing lyrical about racial justice, even as the Trump administration infamously separated migrant children from their families and caged them. Microsoft and Thomson Reuters’ own investors are now demanding greater scrutiny of the contracts.

Read: Khashoggi’s friends, family targeted by Saudi, UAE using Israel spyware, data leak reveals

This is far from simply an American issue. What has been termed the “border and surveillance industrial complex” crosses the world. American tech firms like IBM and the Israeli military industry in the form of arms companies such as Elbit meet again at the European border. The EU’s border agency, Frontex, along with individual member states, are building an ever-more advanced network of surveillance technology. This network of tracking systems, AI and biometrics, “smart walls”, and old-fashioned brute force controls a system which has been responsible for an estimated 2,000 deaths at the European border during the past year alone. This has been the Global North’s response to the refugee surge fuelled largely by those fleeing the horrors of the Syrian civil war.

The surveillance-industrial complex is a threat to us all. Whether it’s a journalist trying to protect the identities of whistle blowers; an opposition politician engaged with confidential information; a victim of war and poverty fleeing to safety; or a human rights NGO in the field, the Pegasus scandal has helped lift the lid on how many of us are at the mercy of shadowy corporations exercising immense power with almost no accountability. If there is anything that can be done with this exposure of such a widespread and common threat, it is for people from hugely different backgrounds and contexts to realise that we all have an interest in working together to hold the surveillance industry to account. The Pegasus scandal is not an exception, but if those involved go unchallenged, it risks becoming the norm.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.