The company says it does not control what its customers do with the software, but follows Israeli laws on the export of military-grade technology, is selective in verifying its customers, and cuts off access if it finds a problem. abuse.
A perfect marriage between espionage and technology
Israel’s dominance in cybersecurity did not happen in a vacuum. The country’s intelligence and covert operations divisions, particularly its Mossad security forces, have long had a reputation for engaging in cunning, daring and ruthless espionage, polished by Hollywood portrayals.
As Israel’s importance as a hub for tech innovation and startups grew, the two areas converged to give the small country disproportionate influence in the cybersecurity industry.
The country’s resource-rich education system, along with compulsory military service, is getting dozens of young Israelis to high-level cybersecurity and cyber warfare training before many even go to college, Tal says. Pavel, head of cybersecurity studies at the University College. of Tel Aviv Yaffo. Much of the country’s most advanced technology has its roots in military development, Pavel noted.
One of the Israel Defense Forces’ most elite units is covert 8200, the cyber espionage agency that has produced some of the nation’s biggest tech superstars.
“One of the unique things about Israel is ‘cynergy’, the bringing together of cyber and synergy between industries,” Pavel told CNN, before hinting at a feature he said is. perhaps rooted in the Israeli psyche.
“There is also something here… maybe there is also the struggle to survive. If everything is happy and you are not constantly trying to survive (against people who are trying to destroy you), you do not have to innovate, to face. “
NSO was founded in 2009, but it wasn’t until 2016 that the power of NSO’s technology came under scrutiny.
It was in that year that reports revealed that UAE human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor received suspicious text messages containing links, which researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab revealed contained a malware from NSO that allegedly hacked his iPhone. (In 2018, Mansoor was sentenced to 10 years in prison for “damaging the reputation” of the UAE on social media.)
The Pegasus software was also allegedly linked to the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi via his dissident colleague Omar Abdulaziz, whose phone was allegedly hacked via the Pegasus software. Abdulaziz sued NSO in 2019, accusing the company of violating international law by selling the software to oppressive regimes. Early last year, an Israeli judge rejected NSO’s request to dismiss the lawsuit, which NSO said lacked “good faith,” according to The Guardian. NSO has repeatedly denied that its software was used to monitor Khashoggi or his family.
The recent investigation by the International Media and Human Rights Consortium found evidence of the Pegasus software on 37 phones owned by people who, based on the company’s own description of the software’s purpose, did not should not have been the target of NSO software, such as journalists and human rights. activists.
CNN has not independently verified the findings of this investigation, called the Pegasus Project, organized by Forbidden Stories. In a statement to CNN, NSO strongly denied the investigation’s findings, saying it found fault with many of its claims.
As a result, countries like France announced surveys into the use of the technology, while Amazon said it had “shut down the relevant infrastructure and accounts” linked to the ONS that was using Amazon’s services.
Tip of the iceberg
NSO is only one part of a large cyber espionage industry, according to Israel Bashar, a strategy and communications consultant who has worked with many Israeli political leaders, including former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the current deputy. -Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz. .
“Let’s be honest, states are constantly gathering intelligence against each other. Everyone is spying on everyone. And when it comes to an Israeli company, there is a lot of hypocrisy, ”Bashar said, pointing to previous revelations about US National Security Agency spying. on world leaders and its own citizens. “NSO is another tool, but there are many other tools. ”
Beyond its actual capabilities, companies like NSO are also helping Israel diplomatically, Bashar said, as Israel has had years of quiet, and now public, relations with former adversaries.
“One of the tools that Israel uses diplomatically is its intelligence capability. It’s no secret that Israel shares sensitive intelligence even with Arab countries because we have an interest in protecting it, ”Bashar said.
But Professor Yuval Shany, chairman of the department of public international law at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, says the tactics are starting to backfire on Israel’s image.
“The logic is that Israel may be prepared to turn a blind eye to the transactions that are being carried out with friendly regimes in the sense that they are friendly with Israel but not necessarily favorable to human rights,” Shany said. “I think this recent scandal, which is quite embarrassing both for NSO but also for Israel, would lead at least in the short term to some tightening of export control standards. ”
How to control the uncontrollable
Unlike conventional weapons, software is often intangible and can easily be sold and transferred around the world, making it difficult to attempt to control technologies such as the Pegasus system.
The NSO and similar military-grade technologies are regulated by an export control structure within Israel’s Defense Ministry, Shany said. This system looks at both the technology and the target; which entity – state or non-state – is buying this technology, including its human rights record, he added. But, said Shany, looking at the allegations regarding NSO’s Pegasus software, “the results are not impressive, that’s quite concerning.”
Responding to the most recent allegations regarding the NSO technology, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said they are “investigating” the allegations, while an inter-ministerial team has been appointed to examine the ongoing process and whether the technology Israeli-made products were being misused abroad, according to Reuters.
A quick fix, Shany said, would be for Israel to formally sign the Wassenaar Accord between 42 countries, which attempts to bring transparency to the export of military and dual-use technologies and tries to prevent such technology from being exported. is acquired by dangerous elements. Shany said Israel is currently adhering to the agreement but is not a formal member of it.
But the most important reforms to help control such technology will come from within, said Karine Nahon, professor at the Herzliya Interdisciplinary Center and president of the Israel Internet Association.
“If Israel doesn’t export it, someone else would, if you don’t give these engineers and startup licenses and provide some kind of supervision, there’s nothing stopping them from moving to another country and to sell it from there, ”she said.
Nahone calls for ethical consideration and the possibility that such technology could be exploited to become a more important part of an export decision. And, she suggested, companies should place more limits on software use and have more control over how their customers use the software – something NSO says it has little control over. .
“NSO does not operate the system and has no visibility into the data,” the company said in a statement last week, saying it would continue to investigate “all credible allegations of abuse and take appropriate action based on the results ”of these inquiries.
“It complicates things in terms of the liability of these companies and Israel, but on the other hand, it could minimize the number of countries to which this software is exported,” Nahone said.
While it may appear that the image of NSO and Israel is being dragged in the mud for its connection to such alarming surveillance, Bashar said that overall it could have a positive effect for those who want to continue. to make Israel a leader in advanced technology and intelligence operations. .
“I think sometimes people come to curse and the result is that there is a blessing because what happened at the end of the day people remember that the best technology is Israeli technology, NSO” , said Bashar. “This is what people will remember in three months. “