Pegasus: How Israel supercharges digital authoritarianism
If the public relations spiel of Israeli spyware company NSO Group is to be believed, activists and journalists, that’s to say those at the forefront of holding authoritarian regimes to account and lobbying for human rights, are the new terrorists and criminals.
A recent Guardian investigation revealed that up to 50,000 people around the world have been listed as potential targets of Pegasus, a sophisticated spyware application that infects and targets a user’s smartphone, enabling the client - usually a government agency - to secretly monitor emails, calls, location, text messages, and cameras.
Some of this information was already known. As recently as December 2020 for example, the Toronto-based Citizen Lab revealed that 36 Al Jazeera journalists had been hacked by the UAE and Saudi Arabia using Pegasus spyware.
"Israel and its illegal occupation benefit from selling the 'toy that everyone wants' to governments that broadly support its vision for the region"
However, until the recent leak, the sheer scale of Pegasus operations was unknown. The list of leaked potential targets ranges from French President Emmanuel Macron, to the Prime Minister of Iraq. In fact, possible targets include ‘Ten prime ministers, three presidents and a king’.
The reality is that Israeli-made spyware has nothing to do with law enforcement, and is in fact a form of warfare designed to aid and abet Israel’s foreign policy in the Middle East and beyond. More often than not, this means entrenching the rule of the region’s authoritarian leaders by allowing Pegasus to be used to target human rights defenders, dissidents, activists, and journalists.
NSO and the Israeli state
NSO Group claims that they strive to ensure their product is being used "safely, effectively and ethically", but employees have said that in reality there are few checks or controls on how it is used by clients.
Some call the sale of tools like Pegasus "spy tech diplomacy", whereby Israel seeks to ingratiate itself with its Middle East neighbours by offering sophisticated digital spyware. In reality, it's more akin to a form of technological warfare by proxy, driven by the interests of the Israeli state.
Indeed, Israel and its illegal occupation benefit from selling the "toy that everyone wants" to governments that broadly support its vision for the region, especially when it comes to fighting the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran. For this reason, it does not sell the tool to Iran or Qatar.
At least 35 journalists in four countries were selected as targets by an NSO client alleged to be the Moroccan government, according to a reports https://t.co/SyQguDBq5X— The New Arab (@The_NewArab) July 19, 2021
In some cases, the benefits to Israel are directly obvious. In countries such as the UAE, where criticism of government policy, including its recent normalisation with Israel, is essentially criminalised, UAE can justify using spyware against such "criminal" criticism. Of course, Israel benefits when other governments clamp down on its critics.
Authoritarian governments are better customers
If the Israeli government, or indeed NSO group were truly concerned about the potential "misuse" of their products, they certainly would not actively mediate the sale of Pegasus to Saudi Arabia or the UAE where human rights violations are well-documented.
Indeed, it's worth remembering that in 2019, when the world knew of the Saudi state’s role in the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, (whose wife was also targeted with Pegasus), the Guardian reported that the Israeli government was pressuring NSO Group to resume Pegasus sales to Saudi Arabia.
How can Israel argue that their export regulations respect human rights, and how can NSO group argue that they strive to ensure their products are not misused, when they are selling to a country whose de facto head of state was involved in the extraterritorial execution of a prominent US-based journalist?
For authoritarian regimes, we are all a tweet away from being labelled a terrorist
NSO Group tries to deflect any accusations by claiming that they only sell to approved state agencies and that they check if the product is used against legitimate terrorists and criminals. Yet authoritarian regimes are defined by the arbitrary exercise of power. Legitimate critics are often arrested on spurious charges and accused of being enemies of the state or terrorists to justify their detention.
It is no coincidence then, that Jamal Khashoggi was smeared as a "terrorist", by the Saudi media and hawkish US Republicans keen on maintaining close ties with Saudi Arabia. Even Alaa Al Siddiq, an exiled Emirati activist killed in a tragic car crash in the UK was smeared by pro-government accounts as a Muslim Brotherhood terrorist sympathiser after her death in June.
"The tired adage, 'if you’ve done nothing wrong, there’s no need to worry about surveillance', is ultimately meaningless"
Those who believe they are innocent should also be worried. The tired adage, "if you’ve done nothing wrong, there’s no need to worry about surveillance", is ultimately meaningless. Information used in hacking operations is not simply about gaining information about criminality. In many cases, it’s about accessing information that can be used as leverage or blackmail. This includes potentially compromising personal audio and media.
The Israeli government’s attempts to distance itself from the activities of the private sector are laughable. Recently, Candiru, another Israeli-manufactured spyware tool was used to infect devices belonging to at least 100 activists, journalists and dissidents.
Israel’s export process is clearly a facade. And in a garrison state such as Israel, where most citizens have some form of military or intelligence training, having private sector companies engage in activities that benefit state security without directly implicating the state simply gives the government useful political cover.
US and European officials have raised concerns over how much access the Israeli government has to this information. One former US national security officer told the Washington Post that "It’s crazy to think that NSO wouldn’t share sensitive national security information with the government of Israel".
The new authoritarianism
While shining a light on surveillance appears to be a good thing, this new knowledge of the potential scale of the NSO Group operation is going to have chilling effects. Surveillance is at its most effective when it is permanent in its effects, but discontinuous in its action.
"People need only to fear surveillance for it to impact their willingness to communicate and interact with others"
In other words, people need only to fear surveillance for it to impact their willingness to communicate and interact with others. How many people will now be even more paranoid about continuing their job as they did before?
More troubling still, even those not directly targeted by Pegasus, are compromised if they have communicated with an individual whose smartphone has been infected. What about their rights?
So, where does power lie in this new digital panopticon?
Israel, a rogue actor repeatedly in breach of international law, is providing unscrupulous but like-minded regimes with cutting-edge tools to potentially extort, bribe and imprison those responsible for a thriving, critical civil society.
Short of discarding one’s smartphone, it is extremely difficult for the average person to defend against such advanced Spyware exploits. One avenue is privacy protection policies that benefit MENA citizens, but will not happen without regime change. The best interim defence is a moratorium on the export of Israeli spyware.
Otherwise, any notions of privacy will soon be a thing of the past.
Marc Owen Jones is an assistant professor in Middle East studies and digital humanities at Hamad bin Khalifa University in Doha, and an honorary research fellow at Exeter University.
Follow him on Twitter: @marcowenjones
Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab.
Have questions or comments? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org