Israeli officials defend spyware technology to Biden, as activists condemn surveillance

NSO logo (Facebook)

Michael Arria

Mondoweiss  /  November 9, 2021

Israel is lobbying Biden to lift sanctions on the NSO Group as Palestinian rights groups demand an investigation.

The Israeli government is lobbying the Biden administration to remove sanctions it place last week on the Israeli technology firm NSO Group. The push comes amid calls for a deeper investigation into how the company’s hacking technology ended up on the phones of Palestinian activists.

Analysts say that spyware developed by the NSO Group was found on the cellphones of six Palestinian activists, some of whom are connected to human rights groups that Israel has tagged as terrorist organizations. Mohammed al-Maskati, from the investigative group Frontline Defenders, found the spyware on one of the phones last month but researchers say the hacking began back in July of 2020.

Organizations like Frontline Defenders have been tracking the NSO Group’s Pegasus technology for years. A recent investigation by the French nonprofit Forbidden Stories found that authoritarian governments used Pegasus to target over 180 journalists across more than 20 countries. Targets included the family of the late Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by Saudi agents in 2018.

On October 16 the Jerusalem-based human rights group Al-Haq contacted Frontline Defenders over concerns that the phone of one of their staff members had been hacked with the technology. An investigation found that the device had been infected by Pegasus for over a year. Just a few days later Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz issued an executive order designating six Palestinian human rights groups as terrorist organizations.

“While this latest move by the Israeli government is part of an alarming trend that is designed to try to stop the work of human rights organizations and human rights defenders, the timing and method of the designation suggests that it is also an effort to legitimate the surveillance and infiltration of the devices of Palestinian human rights defenders using Pegasus spyware,” said Frontline Defenders in a statement.

On November 3, the Biden administration imposed sanctions on the NSO Group, finding that the company had acted “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” This week Israeli officials are in Washington fighting to have the company taken off that blacklist. The Israeli prime minister’s office has insisted that the technology was not used to hack the phones of any Palestinian activists, despite the suspicious timing of the revelations. Israeli officials recently presented the Biden administration with a dossier which allegedly proved the six human rights organizations are connected to terrorism. The dossier has been widely discredited in media reports.

While Israel attempts to pressure Biden, Palestinian rights groups are calling for a more thorough investigation into the hacks.

“Ask the White House & Congress to investigate Israel’s use of Pegasus spyware on human rights organizations and defenders,” reads a petition being circulated by Americans for Justice in Palestine Action. “Besides the attempt to deter them from documenting the Israeli government’s violent and oppressive regime against Palestinians, we now know that the designation of these six human rights organizations was also an effort to cover up Israel’s use of notorious spyware.”

“We know what repression looks like. Smearing human rights defenders and spreading propaganda to delegitimize their work,” said U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights Executive Director Ahmad Abuznaid. “Surveilling activists and journalists who dare to expose the truth. All the while continuing to commit human rights violations on a daily basis. The Israeli regime is a separate-and-unequal apartheid state employing every last authoritarian tactic at its disposal, but we know the truth: that liberation is coming and Palestine will be free.”

When asked about the phone hacks of Palestinian groups this week, State Department spokesperson Ned Price deflected the question:

MR PRICE: I’ve seen those reports. I don’t have a response to them. What I can tell you is to reiterate that we had a constructive discussion with an Israeli delegation that was visiting last week. The delegation provided a verbal briefing on information that they had on certain groups. They also provided written materials. We’ve provided those written materials to our counterparts in the administration. We’re going to take a very close look at them as we —

 QUESTION: All right, but you haven’t – but you haven’t yet reached any kind of conclusion based on the information they’ve provided, and you don’t have anything – or do you – to say about these allegations, the hacking allegations?

 MR PRICE: We intend, and we are, together with our partners throughout the interagency, to take a very close look at the information that was provided to us in written form, to cross-reference that information with what we may have in our own holdings, and from that we’ll form an informed judgment.

On Monday Mexican prosecutors announced that they had arrested a businessman who allegedly used the Pegasus technology to spy on a journalist.

Michael Arria is the U.S. correspondent for Mondoweiss