The UK Home Office turns a blind eye to Israel's cyber war crimes
Next week, in the small Hampshire town of Farnborough, the UK Home Office will be hosting an international arms fair where hundreds of weapons, tech and surveillance companies will be selling their latest technologies to “a record number” of UK police departments, border forces and government security agencies.
In its continued bid to market itself as a high-tech, “start-up nation”, Israel’s cyber-surveillance companies are set to be amongst the exhibitors pitching to the 27 UK government departments. Contrary to the positive image it portrays, much of its technology is developed in the service of the longest military occupation in the modern era.
Alongside the physical presence of soldiers, checkpoints, settlements and an apartheid wall, Israel has developed cutting-edge cyber-weaponry with which it has erected a digital and informational matrix of control over vast sections of Palestinian life.
In east Jerusalem, the city is monitored by at least 1,100 cameras that together surveil and map the Palestinian population, cross-checking live inputs against an integrated database of facial recognition, biometrics, social media, digital communications and government records to create a “predictive policing” system.
"Israel has developed cutting-edge cyber-weaponry with which it has erected a digital and informational matrix of control over vast sections of Palestinian life"
According to 7amleh, the Arab Centre for the Advancement of Social Media, “[t]he Jerusalem municipality has not released information regarding the technical capabilities of these systems; however AnyVision, a biometric start-up responsible for the facial recognition cameras installed at major checkpoints throughout the West Bank […] claims its cameras could identify any pedestrian, day or night, with or without a face mask, and track their movement across any urban space.”
Across the occupied West Bank, a facial-recognition system called Blue Wolf has been being rolled out for at least the past two years against the populace’s knowledge or will. Described by one Israeli soldier as “a secret Facebook for Palestinians”, for years the IDF has been photographing Palestinians - including children and the elderly - to build a massive database of Palestinians’ facial metrics. Israeli army units reportedly ran competitions over who could photograph more people in a day.
In Hebron, a network of cameras monitors the city’s population in real time. This digital system, branded a “smart city” by Israel’s occupation authorities, in some places sees directly into people’s homes. It is the digital vanguard of the most violent and conspicuous form of apartheid in Palestine where several thousand Israeli soldiers occupy the centre of the largest city in the West Bank.
Surveillance technologies are the frontier of Israel’s ongoing colonisation and control of Palestine. Much of this technological development occurs under Unit 8200, the largest within the Israeli Army. In 2014, several whistle-blowers detailed the Unit’s concerning practices, explaining that “all Palestinians are exposed to non-stop monitoring without any legal protection.
Junior soldiers can decide when someone is a target for the collection of information. There is no procedure in place to determine whether the violation of the individual’s rights is necessarily justifiable. The notion of rights for Palestinians does not exist at all.”
Unit 8200 is also a feeder into the Israeli private sector in which the technology and techniques developed to deepen Israel’s military control over Palestinian life are then re-packaged and sold. The private tech sector is dominated by graduates of Unit 8200, whose military background is promoted as a selling point - much as Israeli weapons have long been marketed as ‘battle-proven’. In fact, a 2018 study found that out of Israel’s 700 cybersecurity companies, 80% of its founders were Unit 8200 graduates.
The only country with more start-ups than Israel is the United States. It is a booming sector, and, according to The Times of Israel, “for the first time, exports of “services” — a loose term that includes Israeli technology services like cybersecurity and artificial intelligence — appeared to be exceeding exports of goods […] In 2021, exports of services are set to amount to 51%, with 49% for goods.”
By far the most famous Israeli cyberweapons company is NSO Group, whose hacking software, Pegasus, was discovered to have been used in the murder of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi. Since then there has been a consistent stream of stories emerging about the use of Pegasus by authoritarian regimes around the world in the targeting of journalists, civil society and activists. There is a total of 50,000 phones identified as having been infected so far, including those of activists in Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Western Sahara, the UAE, Rwanda and Bahrain. Rights groups are urging the EU and UK to backlist the company.
Pegasus has been deployed against Palestinian human rights defenders, notably employees of six NGOs currently being targeted by Israel. Among them is Salah Hamouri of Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association, who was recently arrested, the day after publishing an article affirming that his “commitment to our cause is more important now than ever before.”
"The UK government is not only directly facilitating human rights abuses and war crimes against Palestinians, it is encouraging the proliferation of dangerous, anti-democratic cyberweaponry that is being tested on Palestinians and exported around the world"
But NSO Group is just the most famous among dozens, if not hundreds, of companies that have been established in Israel in recent years, headed by veterans of Unit 8200, profiting from the mass surveillance of Palestinians. AnyVision (now known as Oosto), currently has over 500 clients around the world ranging from stadiums, to casinos, airports, corporations, and government agencies.
Cellebrite, famous for its phone-cracking security bypass system, boasts that its technology has been used at least 5,000,000 times by security agencies across 140 countries. Viber has been dubbed “the next hotbed of political disinformation.” The surveillance company Verint pulls in over $800m annually and claims to serve 85 of the Fortune 100 companies. The list goes on.
In 2020, the UK government invited NSO Group to take part in its Security and Policing event. The invitation was ultimately rescinded due to active campaign pressure. But excluding a single company is only a first step, and the fact that it was invited in the first place should stand as a warning about the nefarious trade in weapons and spyware, that is occurring right on our doorstep, with the full participation of the UK government.
By inviting Israeli companies in 2022, the UK government is not only directly facilitating human rights abuses and war crimes against Palestinians, it is encouraging the proliferation of dangerous, anti-democratic cyberweaponry that is being tested on Palestinians and exported around the world.
The start-up nation is a veritable font of dangerous, military-grade technology and the UK Home Office as well as the various government agencies attending the conference should not be facilitating their sale and commercial integration into the institutions of a democracy.
The UK government should be calling for independent investigations into Israel’s deployment of cyber-weapons against civilians and implementing a ban of the two-way trade in weapons with Israel.
Ben Jamal is Director of UK-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC).
Follow him on Twitter: @BenJamalpsc
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.