The Irish Times view on Israeli spyware: big brother is listening

It is clear that not a few NSO clients would have little scruple in using phone-breaking technology to undermine basic human rights

An Israeli firm accused of supplying spyware to governments has been linked to a list of tens of thousands of smartphone numbers, including those of activists, journalists, business executives and politicians around the world, according to reports. Photograph: Chris Delmas/ AFP via Getty Images

An Israeli firm accused of supplying spyware to governments has been linked to a list of tens of thousands of smartphone numbers, including those of activists, journalists, business executives and politicians around the world, according to reports. Photograph: Chris Delmas/ AFP via Getty Images

 

That the Israeli NSO Group makes and licences military-grade spyware to states around the world is well known. It is a world leader in the largely unregulated private spyware industry and provides an ability to break into and monitor individual phones. Its Pegasus tool is supposedly only licensed for use against terrorism suspects or organised crime.

A list emanating allegedly from NSO of some 50,000 numbers in more than 50 countries, many known to be clients, and many known to be involved in surveillance of their citizens, has emerged in the international press. An investigation by the Washington Post and 16 media partners has found evidence that some 37 smartphones on the list belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives and two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, have been hacked using Pegasus.

NSO vehemently denies that it is the source of the list but admits that it does not control or routinely check unauthorised use by its clients of the software. It insists that, following Khashoggi’s killing by the Saudi authorities, which it deplored, the firm investigated any use of its product and found no connection. It says its technologies have helped prevent attacks and bombings and broken up rings that trafficked in drugs, sex and children.

The Israeli government says that export permits are issued only for strictly defined purposes and “in cases where exported items are used in violation of export licenses or end-use certificates, appropriate measures are taken”. Have licences ever been suspended?

The denials are not persuasive. It is clear that not a few NSO clients would have little scruple in using such technology to undermine basic human rights. Journalists under surveillance – and all those who might be watched by the state – cannot safely gather sensitive news without endangering themselves and sources. Opposition politicians cannot privately discuss campaigns. Human rights workers cannot work with vulnerable people without exposing them to renewed abuse.

Israel must do more to police such technology.

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