- Marwa Fatafta, MENA Policy Manager, AccessNow, Israel
- Mona Shtaya, Advisor at 7amleh, Arab Center for the advancement of Social Media, Palestine
- Eitay Mack, Human Rights Lawyer, representing HCLU in its court case against NSO
NSO claims that it complies with the law, explains Marwa Fatafta of AccessNow. However, six Palestinian civil rights activists were intercepted with it, after their civil society organizations in the Occupied Palestinian Territory were labeled as “terrorist organizations”. Some of the organizations were also supported by the EU. One of those attacked is Salah Hamouri, a French-Palestinian lawyer, he is currently in detention without charge. He may be deported because he has opposed the Israeli state. The committee should therefore meet with the groups concerned, as well as Israeli government-critical organizations, in order to realize that technology is a tool of state repression. Haaretz writes that 80% of the cyberweapons personnel come from the military or its intelligence services. Many of them served in the notorious Unit 8200.
Pegasus joins numerous other surveillance tools such as cameras and a biometric database with facial images, etc. Supposedly, Israel does not intercept activities in the Occupied Territories. However, there is no supervision there, which provides the best conditions for the use of mercenary spyware. Israel’s government, according to Fatafta, is not only incapable of regulation, but promotes the mercenary spyware trade. Countries that do not respect human rights, are also supplied. In return, Israel received e.g. overflight rights. She knows of cases like Emirati activist Ahmed Mansour, who is in prison for 10 years. But we have no evidence that technology has ever prevented terrorism. Many of those affected also live in exile, including in EU countries. They need to be able to do their work. But companies like NSO make their prosecution possible in the first place. How this is done in the EU needs to be investigated. 11 governments are confirmed customers of Pegasus/ SO: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates.
The spied out are traumatized by this, live in anxiety and fear, hardly dare to work. One of their clients was attacked eight times, before that she had participated in a conference on human rights. Intimate photos are also made public in order to intimidate the victims. Surveillance also affects the community of those being intercepted, who can also be arrested. As in the Jamal Kashoggi case, the Israeli government could well investigate such cases, but remains inactive.
You can’t just focus on the „poster child“, Fatafta concludes, if there’s too little known about the industry as a whole. There are about 700 companies producing spyware, almost all of them military-related. They are estimated to have a turnover of around 8.8 billion US dollars in 2021, with „astronomical profits“. Therefore, the export licenses for Pegasus must be withdrawn, she explains. Human rights activists must not be persecuted as terrorists. NSO must not profit from astronomical gains when activists meanwhile cannot do their work. If NSO were dissolved, new companies would take its place tomorrow. There is also Candiru, for example. Microsoft did an investigation on this and found out that at least 100 people were attacked with it. That’s why the EU must regulate trade in them, she said. Regulation of spyware is only one thing; governments can do a lot at the national and international level to ensure that it is not abused. Among them are transparency, redress for victims, measures of oversight. We need a moratorium on this, she says. If this industry cannot regulate itself, governments have to do it.
Palestinians are affected by numerous surveillance technologies, according to Mona Shtaya of 7amleh. Israel has created a broad infrastructure for this and thus a modern panopticon. The Internet infrastructure is also controlled and hierarchized. One of the systems is „Blue Wolf“, a smartphone app that started in Hebron. For it, residents of the West Bank are stored with their biometric data in a „Wolf Pack“ database. Soldiers are required to add 50 new people to the system at a time. Pegasus was used to spy on six Palestinian activists maligned as terrorists, including French-Palestinian lawyer Salah Hamouri. The Attorney General has announced that he will investigate this.
We Palestinians are intercepted in many ways, including with Pegasus, she explains. The tools are marketed internationally and used to spy on political opponents, diplomats, journalists and activists. They are aware of the Open Letter of 3 December 2021 from 86 non-governmental organizations to the EU High Representative and Commissioner Joseph Borrell, according to which the EU should also sanction NSO. We appeal to the Commission to reconsider the decision not to open investigations into the Pegasus operation against opposition members and press in the Member States, Shtaya says. The right to privacy and freedom is violated, therefore NSO must be sanctioned. They call on civil society to do so and recommend on Palestinian civilians to be consulted about this.
Every phone in Gaza is tapped, says Shtaya, with different tools. They live in a surveillance state. This also hinders communication with family, lawyers, etc. Those affected are traumatized. Israel must be held accountable for this.
All sales are kept secret, so there is a lack of transparency. We Palestinians therefore do not know when this will be tested on us, Shtaya explains. That is why they are very grateful for such research. But it doesn’t just affect Palestinians; the Shin Beth domestic secret service has also been spying on its own citizens since 2000, according to media reports.
Systems like Pegasus violate Article 21 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, which prohibits discrimination, begins Human Rights Lawyer Mack. For this reason, the U.S. government has blacklisted Pegasus. In Israel, MEPs will meet members of the government who may come in suits and with a friendly attitude and also speak their language, but they would not provide facts.
The Ministry of Justice has complained that reporting is not accurate. Since then, there has been little interest in the issue in Israel. However, all parties from the „extreme left to the extreme right“ are against the use on human rights grounds. In the Department of Defense, three people in the relevant department work on export licenses. Parliament is not informed about this, its oversight is prevented. Knesset has no oversight, courts cannot do anything, every lawsuit costs money.
Even if you think you can regulate deployment in the EU, you could still be attacked from another country, Mack says. NSO is not a private company, it is actually a department of the government. The company is needed no matter who is in government. The EU has an important role here, in several ways. All the systems would not work if they were not bought by democratic countries from Israel. This strengthens the company, if they also sell to authoritarian states. Israel is still the leader here. In his opinion, these systems should be banned completely. They destroy all kinds of rights and freedoms. EU states should therefore reconsider whether they should not supervise the surveillance industry with the same means as the defense industry.
There are close to 1,000 different companies in the defense industry. So the problem is not one single company. Mack had done a lot of work on Cellebrite, a forensic hardware and software for reading digital devices that is also used in Belarus, Venezuela and Myanmar.
The Israeli government’s policy is not to interfere in other countries unless it affects its own interests. The EU therefore needs to put pressure on Israel’s policies to change, according to Mack. The government and the Ministry of Defense reportedly do not exercise oversight, but they know who is being targeted with it. Victims should officially contact NSO about this, but they understandably have concerns. The problem with software like Pegasus is also that it not only intercepts in real time, but can reveal a person’s entire history, or manipulate it on the device as well.
Allegedly, the system is only sold to track crime. Customers would also have to sign off on this. But the definition of terrorism and serious crime is so broad that even NGOs that want to change the government are covered by it. Israel will never interfere with such a definition. That is why there is nothing in the form about human and international law. Now, however, the ministry wants to exercise supervision with a marketing license, but this is window dressing.
The export licenses are also issued for political motives. The son of Equatorial Guinea e.g. was in Israel in June 2021, he received drones in return for diplomatic cooperation. It was the same with Togo and other countries. Hungary, for example, has also been strikingly close to the Israeli government’s position in recent years. Often the contracts for Pegasus also take place among the governments themselves. The defense industry is centralized and controlled by the Ministry of Defense, and export licenses also involve the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. That can also decide to give a contract to another company.
But if the Spanish government buys the technology to spy on Catalan activists, they won’t criticize Israel’s policy on that. Nor will the Israeli government say a word about the abuses in Spain. In only one case has the Israeli government ever cooperated to clear it up, and that was the Iran-Contra case.
The U.S. blacklisting had a huge effect. It financially regulated NSO and had a big impact on the whole industry. It’s out of balance, the U.S. has imposed sanctions while the EU is still considering. You must take action on that, Mack says. There needs to be a blanket ban.
See here the stream of today‘s hearing.