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The Israeli state sells spyware to boost power

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Issue 2764
Israels technology industry is entwined with the state
Israel’s technology industry is entwined with the state (Pic: Flickr/ Israel High Tech)

Israel is very proud of its tech industry. So it can’t pretend it has nothing to do with the use of Israeli hacking software. This software is used to spy on tens of thousands of journalists, activists and politicians across the globe.

For years suspicion and accusations have surrounded Israeli tech company NSO Group and its hacking programme Pegasus. The software installs itself on a target’s smartphone via a text or audio call to a messaging app such as WhatsApp or Telegram.

Then, it turns the target’s phone against them.

It can read messages, record calls, track location, view calendars, contacts and photographs, and even turn on cameras and microphones.

A leaked list of 50,000 potential targets reveals how governments have used it systematically to target political opponents.

NSO’s customers include the right wing, antisemitic government of Hungary, which used the software to target journalists and opposition MPs.

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Targets also include the family members of Jamal Khashoggi—the journalist murdered by Saudi Arabian assassins in 2018.

NSO has always claimed it only sells Pegasus to governments for “legitimate” purposes such as spying on criminals or terrorists. Every sale has to be approved by the Israeli defence ministry.

All this does is point to an even bigger scandal—the relationship between Israel’s private tech industry to the Israeli state, and the governments that back it.

Israeli tech grew out of its military and weapons industry, funded by billions of pounds worth of US military aid.

Such aid is designed to ensure Israel has the military strength it needs to defend the West’s interests in the Middle East.

The military became the motor of Israel’s economy on the back of this funding—with an arms industry selling state of the art weaponry and technology.

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Quite often this is used by the Israeli military first against Palestinians, then sold to the world as “battle tested”.

This is essential not only to Israel’s economy, but also to its political role as an integral part of US military power. Israeli tech is an offshoot of this.

As with many Israeli cybersecurity companies, NSO’s founders are former members of the army’s elite hacking and surveillance body Unit 8200. As young conscripts, members of Unit 8200 figure out new and inventive ways to spy on Palestinians living under Israel’s military occupation.

When they leave the army many go on to join or found the private cybersecurity companies that are vital for the Israeli state today.

Much of the reporting around the Pegasus scandal agonizes over the “misuse” of the Pegasus software. But the scandal can’t be separated from Israel’s role as the US’s watchdog in the Middle East—and its occupation of Palestine.

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