Israel helps other countries to spy on their own citizens

Rubab Zahra

Middle East Monitor  /  September 4, 2023

Israel has been accused of assisting various countries to conduct surveillance against their own citizens. Pakistan is a customer, and now it has been alleged that the Indian government is also buying surveillance tools from the occupation state. 

According to The Financial Times, the Indian government is buying sophisticated surveillance tools from Israeli tech companies such as Cognyte and Septier. These are being used to monitor the digital footprint and activities of Indian citizens. Septier’s products are capable of extracting voice messages, web surfing and emails of their targets. The surveillance system has apparently been deployed at subsea cable landing stations, enabling Indian security agencies to monitor the personal data and communications of its 1.4 billion citizens.

The Narendra Modi government was accused in 2019 and 2021 of utilizing Israeli Pegasus spyware developed by the NSO Group. Various opposition politicians, journalists and activists lambasted the Modi-led BJP government for snooping on their emails, calls and text messages using this spyware. 

Pegasus was developed with $1.6 million given by the Israel Defence Forces’ intelligence Unit 8200. It is notorious for its effective and controversial surveillance capabilities and has been implicated in high-profile cases targeting journalists, activists and dissidents. The use of such technology for surveillance purposes poses a significant threat to freedom of speech and the protection of human rights.

With spyware such as Pegasus, Israeli cyber-security companies have gained a dubious reputation in the surveillance sector as well as in issues like freedom of speech. Last month, it was reported by Haaretz that Pakistani intelligence agencies are also using Israeli devices to track citizens, including the Federal Investigation Agency. 

Israeli tech firm Cellebrite allegedly provides a device called UFED to Pakistan, which allows the police and FIA to access and collect data. The device is sophisticated enough to hack into information like pictures, documents, text messages, call records and contacts saved on password protected devices. It is ironic that a country like Pakistan, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel, is a customer of the occupation state and its companies. There is a similar situation with Bangladesh. 

Although Israeli imports are banned in Bangladesh, its surveillance systems are not. In June 2022, a SpearHead system made by Passitora (owned by a former IDF commander) was exported to Bangladesh. In 2021, Picsix (a company founded by former Israeli intelligence experts) sold Bangladesh equipment capable of monitoring mobile phones. 

Saudi Arabia is also a major customer of Israel. After buying Pegasus from NSO in 2018, Riyadh bought Riegn from Israeli company Quadream in June 2021. It has to be noted that Pegasus was reported to be used to spy on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi prior to his killing. Many journalists in Al Jazeera have claimed that the software has been used to hack their phones as well. Pegasus was also bought by the UAE government. 

In their defence, the companies say that their products are sold to governments to fight terrorism, but is that really true? How can they ensure that the products are only being used to track down terrorist suspects and spies, and not ordinary people holding views at odds with their government? At this point, are they even interested in scrutinizing the use and misuse of their products? 

Israel’s involvement in the sale of surveillance technology to other countries is complex and controversial. It raises important questions about the balance between national security concerns and the potential for human rights violations. 

Israel is now a hub of the private surveillance industry. The infamous Unit 8200 not only spies on Palestinians, but its veterans also use their expertise and skills to develop surveillance tools that are sold to governments around the world. 

There are international agreements that govern the export of surveillance technology. The Wassenaar Arrangement, for example, aims to control the export of dual-use technologies, including surveillance products. Israel, like everyone else, is bound to adhere to these agreements and ensure that its technology is not used for unlawful purposes. Moreover, Israel’s own domestic laws are meant to restrict the supply of such technology, especially to countries with poor human rights records. The law has been criticized for being too weak and not adequately enforced. Nevertheless, the Israeli government claims to abide by both national and international guidelines.

According to a report in The New York Times, this tech trade has helped Israel to develop diplomatic ties with countries like Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE. The occupation state is not averse to ignore the regulations when it is in its financial and diplomatic interests to do so. However, while accepting that national security is important, it should not come at the expense of human rights. Striking the right balance between security and individual privacy and freedom is crucial. 

Rubab Zahra is a writer and analyst at Minute Mirror; she has an MPhil in Mass Communication from the Islamic International University, Islamabad


Russia journalist’s phone hacked with Israel spyware – researchers

Middle East Monitor  /  September 13, 2023

A leading Russian journalist has had her phone compromised by the use of Israeli spyware, researchers said Wednesday, the latest sign that phone hacking tools are being used to spy on media workers and opposition figures worldwide, Reuters reports.

A joint investigation by Canadian internet watchdog, Citizen Lab, and digital rights group, Access Now, found that the phone of Galina Timchenko had been infected using spyware built by the Israeli company, NSO Group. The infection began on or around 10 February,  2023, the researchers said. They did not identify who would have deployed it.

Timchenko – the co-founder and publisher of independent Russian news outlet, Meduza – was in Berlin at the time of the hack, the researchers said.

Media defence groups condemned the alleged surveillance, with the Committee to Protect Journalists saying ‘ journalists and their sources are not free and safe if they are spied on’.

Timchenko was quoted in a story published by Meduza on Wednesday as saying the hacking left her feeling “like I’d been stripped naked in the town square.”

In an email, NSO said it “always investigates credible allegations of misuse.” The company did not say whether an investigation had been opened in this case, or respond when asked for an example of any past investigation.

Researchers, lawmakers and journalists have repeatedly accused NSO of helping governments spy on political opponents and undermine independent reporting. In 2021, the company was blacklisted by the US government over human rights concerns.

Timchenko is a particularly high profile alleged victim. One of the pillars of Russia’s independent media scene, she set up Meduza in Latvia after being fired as the editor of one of Russia’s most popular news websites for falling foul of the authorities. The outlet has since become a prominent source of news amid Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.