Israel Won’t Stop NSO As It Profits From Cyber ​​Ambiguity: Opinion

On January 16, 2020, a meeting took place at the Tel Aviv District Court that is not seen often in Israeli courts. A group of more than a dozen officials from various Israeli security agencies was there, some identifiable as from the Ministry of Defense, others from more secret organizations. The spokesman for the Ministry of Defense was also present.

The group was there to respond to a petition presented to Judge Rachel Barkai by Amnesty, the international human rights organization, requesting that she order the Ministry of Defense to revoke the export license of NSO’s Pegasus spyware.
The petition followed news that Saudi Arabia used NSO products to track down and ultimately assassinate Jamal Khashoggi in October 2018, as well as against a long list of international journalists, politicians and human rights activists.

When the hearing began, State Attorney Sarah Bilu immediately asked the court to remove all members of the public and the media from the courtroom. “We are dealing with an issue that is directly related to national security,” said Bilu, who represented the Defense Ministry. “I won’t be able to say anything and I will have to keep quiet.”

Bilu lectured the judge and tried to argue that even arguments about whether the hearing should remain open should be held behind closed doors. Barkai was unwilling to go that far, but after 15 minutes of discussions, she accepted the state’s position and removed everyone from the courtroom.

A man walks past the logo of the Israeli cyber company NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava desert, southern Israel, on July 22, 2021 (credit: REUTERS / AMIR COHEN)

With the gag order in place, it was only a matter of time before the expected verdict came. Six months later, the Amnesty case was dropped and NSO was able to continue to market its products around the world.

While the Israeli government had no problem fighting to allow NSO to continue selling its products, the government has remained silent amid a growing number of reports of the problematic use of those products at the hands of regimes that are not known for. his exemplary record. on human rights.

Officially, Israel doesn’t say much. He has quietly tried to organize some damage control, like when Defense Minister Benny Gantz flew to Paris to fix things with French President Emmanuel Macron, whose phone was apparently attacked by NSO’s Pegasus. But as Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said Saturday night when asked about the Biden administration’s decision to blacklist the company, “NSO is a private company, it is not a government project. and therefore, even if it is designated, it has nothing to do with the policies of the Israeli government. “

This is where Lapid goes wrong. What the Commerce Department decided might appear to be a business, but it actually has a lot to do with the policies of the Israeli government. Hiding behind the claim that NSO is a private company will not work.

Imagine a different scenario for a moment. Israel Aerospace Industries, the government-owned arms company, is known to supply missiles to Azerbaijan. Although the company does not publish the agreements, the IAI’s Harop suicide drone was seen in action in July 2020 during Azerbaijan’s mini-war with Armenia.

What would have happened if a Harop drone or a Spike missile manufactured by Rafael, also sold to Azerbaijan, had landed in an Armenian school and killed dozens of children? Could Israel have pretended it had nothing to do with it? Could he have been hiding behind statements that the IAI or Rafael are “private companies”?

Of course, no. This does not mean that Israel had stopped arms sales to Azerbaijan, but there would definitely have been calls for that to happen. Either way, burying the head in the sand would not have been an option.

The reason it is an option with NSO is not just because it is a private company, but because of the products that the Herzliya-based company develops and exports. Cyber ​​weapons are not comparable to missiles or drones. When the latter falls somewhere, it leaves behind shrapnel and debris, and sometimes, as seen in Armenia and other battlefields, the remaining parts show a footprint that reveals the Israeli origin of the weapon.

The same cannot be said for cyber weapons like Pegasus. If Israel admits that it allows the sale of cyber weapons, then it would be responsible for the way those weapons are used. It would have to answer questions that would lead to more calls, such as Amnesty, to limit the sale and use of those weapons.

To some extent, this is similar to why Israel does not admit to having drones that can fire missiles. The use of missiles in these drones has been widely documented in US diplomatic cables, as well as international air shows, but publicly, the IDF does not support the use of attack drones.

Can not. Israel decided in 1991 to operate in accordance with the guidelines of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an informal, multinational political understanding among 35 countries aimed at limiting the proliferation of missiles and missile technology. Armed drones would fall into that category, and Israel doesn’t want questions about what it does. When asked about the use of armed drones or the sale of armed drones, the response from Israeli officials is always the same: a shrug, a smile, and no comment.

If Israel were to admit to having armed drones, exporting them would be subject to the restrictions imposed by the MTCR. The ambiguity provides flexibility and Israel’s ability to maneuver between its own alleged use of armed drones and sales to other countries.

The same applies to cyber weapons. When used, it is very difficult to trace a cyber weapon back to its operator. To this day, for example, Israel has yet to claim responsibility for Stuxnet, the cyber worm that infected Iran’s main uranium enrichment facility in 2010 and is widely viewed as one of the world’s first large-scale military cyberattacks.

The moment a country opens up to the use of this type of weapon, it is targeted by politicians, defense groups and pacifist activists who are already seeking to create a convention, similar to the MTCR, that would place limits on the use of the weapon. cyber technology. weapons. With every story about NSO, the calls increase.

“In the future, a licensing requirement should be the default for technology companies that contravene the human rights standard of democratic states,” wrote Marietje Schaake, a former Dutch politician who serves as director of international policy at the Center. Cyber ​​Policy Conference from Stanford University, in the Financial Times this week. “This would guarantee better end-use and export controls. The regulation would also allow mapping how the software is being implemented and allow for greater transparency. “

Israel naturally does not want to be required to achieve that level of transparency, nor does it want to face the dilemma of joining another MTCR-style convention.

While Israel has previously acceded to some international arms agreements, there are others that it has refused to sign, such as the NPT, aimed at controlling the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The refusal to sign the NPT has been used repeatedly over the years against Israel. Why give naysayers another tool?

The Israeli defense establishment also wants to retain the ability not only to use NSO products for its own security, but also to make deals with countries that can then be leveraged for diplomatic benefits.

In general, Israel is not transparent when it comes to its defense sales. While it prides itself on the billions of dollars it contributes annually to the economy, Israelis do not know how their government is using the weapons it develops, or even to which countries these weapons are being sold.

In the United States, for example, the sale of arms must be approved by Congress. This allows for transparency and accountability. In Israel, there is little oversight except for a vague and unclear defense export control office in the Ministry of Defense.

Israel prefers it this way, so it can engage in so-called “arms diplomacy,” which has been used effectively to establish diplomatic relations with many countries, including Singapore, India, and China.

All three countries were wary of announcing formal ties to the Jewish state, but had no trouble buying Israeli weaponry and military expertise. Israel and India, for example, only established formal relations in 1992, but arms sales had been going on for decades prior to that date.

NSO has struggled to maintain its own damage control, but it is not working. In recent years, he hired a long list of former senior IDF officers, such as former IDF deputy spokesman Oded Hershkowitz and former military censor Brig.-Gen. Ariella Ben-Avraham: to try to manage the consequences of her operations in the media. He is also said to work closely with a roster of former army generals and senior defense officials.

The relationship has been beneficial to all parties involved. So far, NSO has been able to sell hundreds of millions of dollars, generating profits for its investors, leverage for the state, and technology advantages for its clients.

Can Israel keep up? It remains to be seen. NSO is a huge headache right now for the Jerusalem government. Pretending that you are dealing with a private company and nothing else is not a serious approach. It is time for the government to reconsider what it is doing.

Related Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *