Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who lives in Canada, has filed a lawsuit against an Israeli technology company called the NSO Group accusing it of providing the Saudi government with the surveillance software to spy on him and his friends — including Jamal Khashoggi. The program, known as Pegasus, not only allows the monitoring of all communications from a phone — all texts, all emails, all phone calls — but can also hijack a mobile phone’s microphone and camera to turn it into a surveillance device.
The information gathered on Khashoggi may have motivated his murder by alerting the Saudi authorities that he was stirring up electronic dissent within the kingdom, while denouncing Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman in vituperative terms as a “pac-man” who devoured all in his path. “The hacking of my phone played a major role in what happened to Jamal, I am really sorry to say,” Abdulaziz told CNN. “The guilt is killing me.”
Firms like the NSO Group have been started by veterans of Unit 8200, Israel’s version of the National Security Agency. A 2016 report by a watchdog group called Privacy International identified 27 Israeli companies in the business of surveillance, the highest number per capita in the world. But the NSO Group has created the most controversy amid charges that its products have been misused against civil society activists around the world.
Mexican journalists and activists are already suing the NSO Group alleging that Pegasus was used to spy on them. Among those allegedly targeted were advocates of a soda tax designed to reduce Mexicans’ consumption of sugary drinks. When the NSO Group went to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) to sell its technology, according to the New York Times, it demonstrated its efficacy by surreptitiously recording the phone calls of a London-based Arab newspaper editor. A UAE human rights activist later complained of having his iPhone hacked, and the UAE was also said to have targeted regional rivals such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. The government of Panama is reported to be another NSO customer that has used the technology to monitor its critics.
When confronted with such criticisms, NSO’s strategy is to deny and deflect. It told the New York Times on Sunday that its products were “licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime.” The company boasts that its products are vetted and licensed by the Israeli government, and that “we do not tolerate misuse of our products. If there is suspicion of misuse, we investigate it and take the appropriate actions, including suspending or terminating a contract.”
It’s true that Israel must approve the sale of NSO’s products — but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government takes an amoral approach to this vetting. It sees such sales as not only good for Israel’s economy but also for its security, because it fosters closer links with Arab states. And if a few dissidents are harassed, jailed or even killed because of this spy software, well, that’s not Israel’s concern. Israelis are deeply cynical — and, after the Iraq War and Arab Spring, understandably so — about the prospects of democracy in the Arab world. They prefer to deal with unelected leaders such as the royal families of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan, and they fear that popularly elected governments would be more hostile to them because of the pervasive anti-Semitism in the Arab world.
Freed of serious regulatory pressure, Israeli spy companies are free to maximize profits any way they can. Firms like the NSO Group appear to be doing little to hold customers such as the Saudi and UAE governments to account for using their products not against terrorist groups such as the Islamic State or against foreign enemies such as Iran but against liberal dissidents. It’s a safe bet that technology companies build in “back doors” that allow them to monitor and take control of their programs if they so desire. It’s likely that the NSO Group could disable its software from afar to stop Saudi Arabia or Mexico from misusing it — but there is no evidence that it has done so.
The trump card in these arguments is always the claim — beloved of arms merchants everywhere — that “if we don’t sell these products, someone else will.” That may very well be true, since the NSO Group is in competition with firms such as Italy’s Hacking Team, which has been accused of catering to repressive regimes such as Kazakhstan, Vietnam and Sudan. But Italy has never claimed a moral mission in the world. Israel has. It’s understandable that Israel would employ brutal tactics such as targeted killings to ensure its own survival. But there is no excuse for enabling foreign oppression for profit.