he Indian government continues to be in denial mode over snooping on journalists, civil society activists, political leaders, ministers and key government officials with the help of the Israeli spyware, Pegasus. It will be interesting to know what the Israeli government is doing in this regard. French President Emmanuel Macron, whose cell phone number is among 50,000 listed to be under suspected surveillance by the spyware, telephoned Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennet, as was revealed July 24, to ascertain whether the Israeli government has started an investigation into the matter.
The Israel government has set up a commission to go into allegations that NSO Group’s Pegasus surveillance software was misused in 10 countries across four continents. The announcement was made by the head of the Israeli Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee in the wake of the global furore over the revelations that the Israeli firm’s spyware appears to have been used by its clients – exclusively governments – to spy on their critics and political adversaries. This strikes at the root of the stated objectives of the sale of cyber technology which are only to track terrorists and criminals. There are clamours for accountability and increased controls on the international sale of spyware technology produced by several firms in Israel, apart from the NSO. Israeli legislator Ram Ben-Barak, who was once deputy head of Israel’s intelligence agency Mossad, told Army Radio in the country that once the report of the review commission is available, the government will assess the need for taking corrective steps.
The chief executive of NSO, Shalev Hulio did not waste time in welcoming the announcement of the investigation, terming it as an opportunity to “clear our name.” He went to the length of alleging that this is a larger attempt “to smear all the Israeli cyber industry.” NSO exports its spyware to 45 countries with approval from the Israeli government. Hulio has asserted that he is prepared to cooperate with any investigation by any government official. And there lies the rub.
For, the Israeli government is also in the dock since it issues licence to all spyware firms in the country to sell their products. Naturally, an inquiry by the government can’t be expected to be fair and transparent. Hulio said his company could not disclose the details of its contracts due to “issues of confidentiality,” a standard alibi for all business firms indulging in malpractices, but assured he would be open and above board to any government seeking details.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz has already defended export licences for the hacking tools and put the onus of ensuring that the devices are not abused on countries that purchase the systems. The clients, he insisted, must meet the terms of the use.
On the other hand, free-speech and digital rights activists demand a moratorium on the sale and transfer of spyware technology till a transparent mechanism is evolved for monitoring these exports. Among the spyware companies in Israel there is one – Candiru – against which Microsoft has levelled the accusation of selling tools to hack into Windows. Critics say Israel needs to rein in its spyware sector and curb proliferation of technologies that operate like commercial intelligence services.
Some experts say there is nothing to be surprised about the growth of spyware in Israel which itself holds hundreds of Palestinians in administrative detention without trial and puts most Palestinians under surveillance all the time. The pioneers of cyber-technology in Israel are often graduates of military hi-tech surveillance units.
When Israel is bedevilled by the spyware controversy and its fallout, it is now facing an ice cream war launched by the Vermont-based iconic brand – Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. It is a protest against the repression and alleged surveillance on Palestinians, especially in the West Bank. The company, founded by two Left-leaning Jewish Americans, has announced it would no longer sell its ice cream in the “Occupied Palestinian Territory” meaning, among other places, the West Bank, which is home to lakhs of settlers. It has a long history of social justice activism and supported the Black Lives Matter protests. Its statement said that continuing sales in the disputed territory would be “inconsistent with our values.” The decision might be a symbolic one, but it seems to be rooted in Left-wing critiques of Israel’s continued military occupation of the West Bank and the expansion of Jewish settlements in areas where an independent Palestinian state is supposed to be formed under a two-state solution. Ben & Jerry’s decision to stop selling its ice cream in parts of Israel has provoked a backlash from Israel’s political leadership. Prime Minister Naftali Bennet charged the company with branding itself as “anti-Israel ice cream.” The latter, however, has made it clear it has no plans to wind up its business from the entire Israel.
The development only shows the deep tension in Israel due to the policy of creating division between Jews and Palestinians of which surveillance, intolerance and repressive measures are key tools. A global consensus is needed to deal sternly with every form of overt and covert suppression of democratic protests of government policies and actions. Till such time, harsh critics of despotic governments worldwide need beware.