After NSO leak, Israel should update its arms export laws for the 21st century, activist says

Extremely limited regulatory legislation that fails to address human rights concerns has led to the NSO Group authorizing the alleged sale of spyware to autocratic regimes, despite Israeli government oversight over it. defense exports

A new scandal engulfed Israeli cyber-company NSO Group after information analyzed by NGOs and journalists leaked, suggesting that its flagship spyware, Pegasus, was used to target journalists, lawyers and activists by governments around the world, with the information revealed.

From a database of 50,000 phone numbers which investigators say is a list of potential targets provided by clients of NSOs, a collaborative investigative working group made up of two NGOs and some 80 journalists and called The Pegasus Project identified more than 180 journalists on the list. , as well as lawyers and human rights defenders. Analysts then attempted to corroborate the connection between the appearance on the list and being the target of Pegasus. Out of 67 phones, whose corresponding number was on the list, and which were tested for signs of attempted infiltration by Pegasus, 37 showed evidence of such an attempt; 30 reviews were inconclusive.

Pegasus would allow its user to obtain personal data such as messages and call records stored on a cell phone. It also allows an operator who successfully infiltrated a target’s device to activate their microphone and cameras, as well as record phone calls. This latest revelation raises serious concerns about the abuse of this powerful tool by governments around the world to silence opposition voices, reveal journalistic sources and more. Among the governments believed to be behind the list of phone numbers identified by project analysts include Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Hungary and Mexico.

Charges against NSO and its spyware Pegasus have been raised repeatedly, with activists pointing to its alleged use against journalists and human rights defenders. Notably, the tool was reportedly used by the Saudi government to track down journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated at the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in 2018.

Pegasus is defined as a weapon by the Israeli government, and its export therefore requires a license from the Ministry of Defense. The 2007 legislation made DECA, the Defense Export Control Agency, responsible for the screening process that all military exports must undergo before trade can begin. So far, DECA’s screening of Pegasus has stood up to scrutiny; in July 2020, an Israeli court dismissed an appeal from Amnesty International requesting the revocation of the software license and declared, according to the Israeli business newspaper Globes, that the government licensing procedure is strict and that the ministry of the Defense continues to supervise Israeli exporters, supervision which can lead to revocation of licenses in cases where human rights violations are discovered.

However, Itay Mack, an Israeli lawyer and longtime advocate for tighter arms export regulations, says the problem is not with the DECA, but with the legislation that governs its decisions. Disregarding specific Israeli interests, DECA refuses licensing “only in the event of an embargo [imposed by] the UN Security Council, ”Mack told The Media Line. Without a United Nations decision – a rare event, he explains, due to the need to align the agendas of the various superpowers – DECA is acting in accordance with the law by allowing Israeli companies to continue selling their wares to customers doubtful.

Avidan Freedman, one of the founders of the Yanshuf organization, which “advocates moral limits on Israel’s arms exports,” strengthens Mack’s position. “There is supervision, there is DECA which supervises… and when examining a license, they can take into account security and diplomacy issues, but the issue of human rights violations is not mentioned in the bill at all. International treaties and obligations are mentioned, but human rights agreements are not specifically mentioned, ”he told The Media Line.

I don’t think there is a single Israeli who wants to think that our international alliances are built on this.

Responding to questions from The Media Line, the Defense Ministry spokesperson said: “The State of Israel regulates the marketing and export of cyber products in accordance with the 2007 Defense Export Control Act. . The checklists are based on the Wassenaar Arrangement and include additional elements. The Wassenaar Arrangement is a non-legally binding post-Cold War international agreement that aims to ensure a more responsible and transparent arms trade.

“Political decisions take into account national security and strategic considerations, which include respect for international agreements,” the statement also said.

“As a policy, the State of Israel approves the export of cyber products exclusively to government entities, for lawful use, and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and combating terrorism,” under end-use / end-user certificates provided by the acquiring government. In cases where exported items are used in violation of export licenses or end-use certificates, appropriate action is taken, ”the spokesperson concluded.

Mack explains that a key factor behind Israel’s desire to allow its businesses to do business with less than appetizing partners is the ambition to forge international alliances, which he says is an attitude that consistently fails. No result. “The diplomatic benefits are negligible because, at the end of the day, countries vote [regarding UN resolutions] according to their own interests… and Israel is disappointed time and time again, ”he said, adding that the support of some of these regimes should be seen as a cause of embarrassment, rather than something to be sought.

Professor Eytan Gilboa of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University, however, says diplomatic considerations are not part of Israel’s policy on arms exports. Israel “does not sell weapons for diplomatic gain … quite the contrary, as you can see these sales are a cause of difficulty in the diplomatic arena,” Gilboa told The Media Line. Rather, he explained that the country’s arms sales are driven solely by security considerations.

“Israel sells arms because it would otherwise be unable to maintain its arms industry,” a vital part of the country’s defense structure, Gilboa said. Selling Israel’s developments also allows it to arm potential strategic allies considered essential to its security. Gilboa cites the Gulf states – Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain all reportedly bought NSO’s Pegasus – as examples. Israel’s allies in the Gulf are vitally important to its defensive strategy vis-à-vis Iran, which it says poses an existential threat. Giving them power thus strengthens Israel’s security. We live in a time of political realism, he said, a time when practical interests trump idealistically motivated actions, and this is true for Western countries, as well as for Israel.

Along with their call for greater limitations, Mack and Avidan are calling for greater transparency, stressing that Israelis should be informed about decisions made by the state on such controversial issues, as well as the reasons behind them. “This thing is being done out of public view and without public debate on the matter. People sitting there [on the committees] are determined in their own way and act in accordance with policies created in the 1950s, ”said Mack. He added that there are a good number of Israeli Knesset members looking to change the law, but the defense and foreign ministries are currently blocking the way forward.

“We have so many good things to export to the world,” Avidan said, listing green tech innovations sold in African countries, fintech startups and more, “… but with our other hand, we let’s export these things. He added: “I don’t think there is a single Israeli who wants to think that our international alliances are built on this.

Political decisions take into account national security and strategic considerations, including respect for international agreements

Gilboa, in turn, also believes that more oversight would be beneficial, however suggesting the formation of a parliamentary body, which would be responsible not only for overseeing the authorization process, but also for continuously monitoring the uses to which the Israeli military technology is put.

In a media statement following Sunday’s revelation, NSO Group said it “strongly denies the false claims made in your report, many of which are unsubstantiated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability of your sources, as well as the the basis of your story. ” NSO says it only sells its tools to approved government agencies. He also denied a link to the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

The company went on to say that “NSO Group’s technologies have helped prevent terrorist attacks, gun violence, car explosions and suicide bombings. Technologies are also used every day to break down pedophilia, sex and drug trafficking networks, locate missing and kidnapped children, locate survivors trapped under collapsed buildings, and protect airspace from the disruptive penetration of dangerous drones. .

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About Joaquin Robertson

Joaquin Robertson

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