Issue #17 - A free pass for Israeli cyber criminals

Why doesn't the media implicate Israel in NSO Group's illegal spying?

While I was away on my holiday, the two biggest stories related to Palestine were the Ben and Jerry’s boycott announcement and the latest revelations about Israeli cyber-weapon Pegasus.

On the former point, you can scroll down to read my latest column.

Pegasus is an advanced form of spyware operated by NSO Group, an Israeli company staffed and founded by former operatives of Unit 8200 — the Israeli military’s cyberwarfare branch.

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Pegasus can infect both Apple and Android phones and essentially hijack them. The operators — NSO Group’s clients — can use the spyware to access virtually anything on the phone: texts, call logs, contacts, emails, photos, documents, videos.

Perhaps most alarmingly, Pegasus even allows the operator to switch on the phone’s camera and microphone. This turns an infected phone into a mobile surveillance device — essentially weaponising it against its owner.

Beginning on Monday last week, reporting consortium Forbidden Stories and human rights group Amnesty International revealed the existence of a leaked database of 50,000 telephone numbers of potential targets of NSO Group’s governmental clients.

Although the presence of a number in the leak doesn’t prove a successful — or even an attempted — infiltration of the phone in question, it seems to show that the number was at the very least “of interest” to NSO Group’s clients.

Although NSO has for years claimed that it allows Pegasus to be used only to investigate terrorism and criminality, this new leak (once again) disproves that smokescreen.

The leak reportedly includes the numbers of more than 180 editors and journalists, including very senior ones such as the Financial Times’ editor Roula Khalaf. It also includes the numbers of human rights defenders and lawyers.

Apart from the sheer scale of the leak, none of this is really new to those of us who’ve been writing about this story already for years. Even Wednesday’s revelation that French President Emmanuel Macron was among 14 world leaders included in the leaked list of numbers “of interest” to NSO Group clients was not entirely without precedent.

My colleague Tamara Nassar reported way back in 2018 that Pegasus had been used by the United Arab Emirates to spy on Qatar’s emir, Tamin bin Hamad Al Thani. The two Gulf emirates are regional rivals, often at odds — usually over foreign policy and the critical eye cast by Qatari satellite channel Al Jazeera.

From the comfort of an almost entirely deserted English beach last week, I read some of The Guardian’s coverage of the story. I must confess I found it quite bemusing, on two counts.

Firstly, the paper’s tenancy to treat the Pegasus story as if it were entirely new. Not true: my colleagues at The Electronic Intifada and I have been covering it since 2017, and we were far from the only ones to do so. You can read our extensive coverage of the story under “NSO Group” on our website.

I myself wrote in 2019 about how an investigation by private messaging service WhatsApp revealed that NSO had used a (now-patched) vulnerability in its software to hijack the phones of at least 1,400 Americans, likely including top US government officials.

Secondly, and even more damaging in my view, is The Guardian’s tendency to downplay the Israeli government’s role in this blatant, institutionalised, industrial scale cybercrime.

On its first day of coverage last week, the paper devoted no less than nine pages to different aspects of the story. This is to be welcomed: better late than never I suppose.

But I checked, and not a single one of the headlines (or their associated subheads) mentioned the fact that NSO Group is an Israeli company with intimate ties to the state of Israeli itself, which closely regulates all its activities.

This is not a matter of running out of space. “Israeli” is just a single word, after all! As my EI colleague Ali Abunimah argued in his essential piece on this last week, you can bet that had NSO Group been a Chinese, Iranian or Russian company, that fact would have been the leading aspect of all the paper’s coverage.

It would also have been a major international scandal, with questions asked in Parliament and Congress. Instead, we have total silence from “our” leaders. This is criminality the supposedly “civilised” countries approve of, it seems.

In the interests of fairness, I suppose I should mention the fact that The Guardian did eventually (in Wednesday’s paper) publish a fairly solid piece about the Israeli government aspect. It laid out some of the evidence pointing to the fact that the Israeli government themselves are aggressively marketing Pegasus among its allies, such as Morocco, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and to anti-Semitic Hungarian leader Viktor Orban.

But the paper’s subsequent coverage kind of undercut that, by seeming to take the new Israeli government at its words when it made assurances of a new “commission reviewing allegations” against NSO Group which “may tighten controls” in the wake of the new revelations.

If you believe that, there’s about 2 million people in Gaza who have a bridge to sell you.

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My work this week

I wrote this piece for my MEMO column, about the Ben and Jerry’s boycott of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. In my view it’s a step in the right direction, though not enough. MEMO has also translated it into Spanish.

The Israeli government’s reaction has been predictably insane, with the supposedly “moderate” president literally calling the boycott “terrorism”.

A very normal country!

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