Exporting the tools of apartheid

An office of the Israeli intelligence firm NSO Group. (photo: Reuters / Amir Cohen / Alamy Stock Photo)
NSO Group, the Israeli firm that sells its spyware to authoritarian regimes around the world, emerged from a military unit that perfected its surveillance techniques on Palestinians.

By Yousef Munayyer | Jewish Currents  | July 26, 2021

With an occupied and stateless population of Palestinians under its rule, to which it has granted no citizenship rights or civil liberties, Israel is free to develop, test, and perfect its surveillance technology on millions of unwilling subjects.

Last week, a joint investigation by 17 media outlets—including The Washington Post, The Guardian, and Haaretz—revealed that Israeli intelligence firm NSO Group had licensed military-grade spyware known as Pegasus to a long list of authoritarian regimes. The report drew on a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers; a close forensic analysis of some of the phones confirmed that they had been hacked by surveillance software capable of monitoring the targets’ movements, listening to their conversations, and accessing their private data.

The list included the phones of several people close to murdered journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi: His wife’s phone was targeted in the months before his gruesome murder, while his fiancée’s phone was hacked in the days after his death. The phone number of Princess Latifa bint Mohammed al-Maktoum was added to the list shortly after her escape from the United Arab Emirates and just days before she was captured on her way to Sri Lanka by Indian commandos, who returned her to Dubai. Numbers belonging to some 14 current or former heads of state were found on the list as well.

The investigation into NSO precipitated criticism of the Israeli government, which licensed the sales; the technology could not have been exported without the explicit consent of the Israeli Defense Ministry. Indeed, The New York Times has reported separately that the Israeli government not only allowed but encouraged the company to continue selling its software to Saudi Arabia, even after the murder of Khashoggi. The Post has raised questions about NSO’s relationship with Israel’s government, citing speculation in the US intelligence community that the company may share some of the information it collects with Israeli security agencies.

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