Dear Mona, in the Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware, you reported on 12 July that Palestinians are affected by numerous surveillance technologies. What are they, for example?
Palestinians are subjected to a multi-layered surveillance system. According to the Oslo accords, the Israeli authorities control the information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. This system impedes and deprives Palestinians of accessing a safe, affordable and high-quality Internet.
As for surveillance technologies, there is e.g. CCTV. Cameras are put to securitize and militarize the public urban places. Also, over the past two years, ground-breaking investigations and reports show other forms of how Israel is developing and testing its surveillance techniques on Palestinians, one of those initiatives is the system Blue Wolf, which was developed when the whole world was immersed in the fight against the pandemic. It started in Hebron, and was used all over the West Bank after that. It is a smart phone app powered by a massive database of Palestinians’ personal information. It draws from a larger database called the „Wolf Pack”, which seeks to profile every Palestinian living in the West Bank without consent or permit. Each profile contains photographs, a family history, and educational background, as well as a security rating. Earlier this year, a new report showed that Israeli soldiers are ordered to enter the photos and details of at least 50 Palestinians into the Israeli force’s „Blue Wolf“ tracking system over the course of each shift. Soldiers who fail to make the quota are forced to remain on duty until they do.
How long has it been known that Israeli authorities also use mercenary spyware to penetrate other peoples‘ computer systems or, as with Pegasus, cell phones?
This was for a long time, and oppressive governments usually buy these spywares from NSO. Many reports were issued by diferent organization such as Amnesty international showed that.
It is often the case that spyware is first used by the military or intelligence services, then spreads to the police. Is it possible to differentiate in Israel which authorities have been using Pegasus or other hacking tools, and since when?
In fact, we can’t differentiate between the different authorities in Israel who use it, especially when living under a surveillance state and almost everything is being watched, as I mentioned for the CCTV. With Pegasus the Israeli government is implanting bugs in the mobile phones of people before they enter Gaza strip, which is easy as they control the ICT infrastructure.
There have been some cases of Palestinian activists being spied on with Pegasus. Which are they, and how was this discovered? Among those spied on is French-Palestinian lawyer Salah Hamouri. The Attorney General has now announced that he will investigate this. What is the status there?
There were 6 Palestinian human rights defenders targeted using Pegasus last year. This was found out by the organization Frontline Defenders. Three of them announced their names, so these are Ghassan Halaika (a field researcher and human rights defender working for Al-Haq), Ubai Al-Aboudi (the Executive Director at Bisan Center for Research and Development), who holds US citizenship, and Salah Hammouri, whom you mentioned already. He is also a field researcher at Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association based in Jerusalem.
The others preferred not to name themselves. As for Salah, who was targeted by NSO spyware, the infiltrating his phone has also put all his clients at risk and deprives them from lawyer-client privileges and right to privacy.
The Hammouri case was very special as the International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) and the Human Rights League (LDH) filed a complaint in France targeting NSO Group for illegally infiltrating the phone of the French citizen and lawyer. It obviously continued on French soil, which constitutes a violation of the right to privacy under French law and international human rights conventions. Just a few weeks ago the French public prosecutor announced that they will open an investigation in the case.
It is often the case that military or surveillance technology from Israeli companies is first tried out in the Occupied Territories before being marketed internationally. Is this also the case with Pegasus?
That’s right, they usually develop and then test weapons and spyware on Palestinians, before they are sold worldwide. As for Pegasus, we don’t have a clear answer, as everything is classified as top secret.
In the Committee, you recommended that the Palestinian civilian population be consulted about the impact of spyware like Pegasus. How was that meant? And what do you think those impacts are?
I meant the committee should meet Palestinian civil society as well as those six human rights defenders to hear their experience, as the surveillance state is changing how people are behaving. Above, I made an example on the CCTV cameras which we investigate in one of our reports. Women in East Jerusalem keep their Hijab on their head inside their homes (which supposed to be their safe space) just because they know and feel surveillance cameras penetrate their homes. So that is changing the behavior and trust because they know that they are watched all the time.
Are the revelations about Pegasus even an issue in Israel?
Earlier this year, it was revealed that Israeli citizens were spied upon as well, as the Israeli police used the NSO group’s controversial Pegasus spyware on politicians and activists. According to the report local mayors, leaders of political protests against the former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and former government employees, were targeted.
How should the European Union respond to the revelations about Pegasus?
During my speech I named a couple of recommendations. We consider the decision of the US Department of Commerce issued in November 2021 to include „NSO Group“ on its Entity List of restricted commerce a necessary step forward. Therefore, we stress the 86 non governmental organisations and experts who launched a call in December 2021 on the European Commission to sanction the NSO Group, and to prohibit the sale and use of its spyware Pegasus.
We also call the European Commission to rethink its announcement about not investigating member states that used Pegasus spyware to target politicians, journalists and their families. as this puts the burden on victims to seek justice in their national courts, further stalling access to remedy and putting an end to excessive surveillance by the state.
It is crucial to make sure that the EU countries stop the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware among other Israeli-developed Spywares within the EU, including prohibiting and sanctioning its use. The EU must put an end on the violations to inter alia freedom of opinion and expression, right to privacy and liberty, all of which are imposed against activists and human rights defenders.
Finally, we call on the global community to pressure Israel to enforce an immediate cease of all practices and policies that aim to intimidate and silence Palestinian activists, civil society organizations and human rights defenders, as it violates our basic human rights and liberties.
Thank you very much!