NSO Group continues to profit off nefarious activity; Israeli democracy does not

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Israeli surveillance company NSO Group has recently caught the attention of the international community–for all the wrong reasons. Photo courtesy of Ha’aretz.

By Aaron Arnstein
Opinion columnist
@AaronArnstein

Throughout its 72-year history, Israel’s groundbreaking technological developments have been well-documented. Firewall software, the USB flash disk and the GPS system Waze would not exist without the help of Israeli technological gurus.

One revolutionary company, however, is challenging the narrative that Israeli technology betters Israel’s democratic standing worldwide.

Israeli surveillance company called NSO Group (Niv, Shalev and Omri, the names of the company’s founders) specializes in developing some of the most advanced surveillance systems in the world. The company’s premier product is named Pegasus, which is the first-of-its-kind spyware that infiltrates mobile phones with just the click of a button. The technology can access emails, texts and internet history and record nearby sounds when the phone is off. 

The company’s highly sophisticated technology has helped other nations apprehend kidnappers and fight terrorism, such as tracking the whereabouts of a suspected Islamic State terrorist last year. However, Pegasus is also used to target political dissidents such as human rights activists and journalists.

This is where the Israeli government must step in and regulate its private sector. As the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel has a moral responsibility to ensure its same ideals are enshrined in its private companies. 

According to Forbidden Stories, a team of investigative journalists whose mission is to inherit the work of journalists who have been censored or killed, the phones of at least 10 Mexican journalists have been hacked by Pegasus. 

In 2016, Jorge Carrasco, editor-in-chief of the Mexican newspaper Proceso, received a text message with a link to the news site Animal Politico. At the time, Carrasco had recently discovered leaked financial documents known as the Panama Papers. Although he never clicked on the link sent to him, human rights organization Amnesty International determined the message was from NSO’s Pegasus.

While some may believe the Israeli government has no involvement in a private company like NSO, each sale the company makes must be licensed by Israel’s Ministry of Defense. Furthermore, many members of NSO have helped develop spyware based on their military experience in Israel. 

Israel’s strong commitment to human rights is well-chronicled. The government conducts free and fair elections. Israel provides their citizens with universal health care. They encourage freedom of speech, religion and the press. They are regarded as one of the most inclusive countries to the LGBT community. None of this matters if Israel allows these freedoms to fail in places like Mexico. 

Israel should use commercial diplomacy and restrict NSO’s involvement with illicit activities. There is no inherent harm in a private firm striving to make a maximum profit, but the Israeli government must intervene due to foreign governments’ abuse of Pegasus. As a democratic country in a region filled with tyrannical leadership, the government cannot allow Israeli companies to sell products that aid in restricting democratic ideals.

Mexican officials have high admiration for Israeli technology, including their spyware. According to The New York Times, Mexican federal agencies have purchased over $80 million of spyware from NSO since 2011. This is the same country that has the highest number of software abuses and attempted to infect over 80 phones using NSO technology in Mexico from 2015 to 2016.

A common belief is that corrupt government officials buy spyware from NSO and subsequently hand over the spy technology to drug cartels in exchange for large cash payments. According to Forbidden Stories, one official described the situation as a “free-for-all.” 

Corrupt officials are taking advantage of Israeli technology to silence journalists and in turn silence democracy. As a journalist myself, I cannot imagine trying to simply do my job without fearing for my life. However, this is a harsh reality journalists across the world face and Israel’s NSO Group is helping the cause.

As a country that has been the center of false narratives in the Middle East, Israel cannot be complacent in the face of Mexico’s actions towards journalists attempting to spread the truth. The Israeli government and NSO can lead by example: practice responsible business conduct to send a message to corrupt governments that use spyware to silence political adversaries.

Israel must right a wrong that is long overdue. This issue cannot be overlooked any longer without drawing the ire of the international community. 

It is time for Israel to tighten its grip on Pegasus’s reigns. COVID-19 Visitor Restrictions and Policies