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Ex-ombudsman said to highlight human rights concerns about NSO Group last year

Report says Yosef Shapira was among a group of former officials who warned the Defense Ministry that without greater oversight of cyber firms, ‘this will blow up in Israel’s face’

State Comptroller Yosef Shapira in the Knesset, December 31, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)
State Comptroller Yosef Shapira in the Knesset, December 31, 2018. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Former national ombudsman Yosef Shapira warned Defense Ministry officials last year about human rights concerns linked to NSO Group’s export of spyware products, an Israeli newspaper reported Friday.

According to the Haaretz daily, Shapira was among a group of former senior officials in the State Comptroller’s Office who met last September with figures in the Defense Export Controls Agency. Shapira and the officials he was with were reportedly representing Cyber Rights Tech (CRT), a group that advises cyber firms on how to reduce their exposure to potential suits or sanctions over human rights issues.

The report said the sides discussed the potential implications from the activities of Israeli cyber companies during the meeting, with Shapira saying these firms’ wares could be used to harm human rights if in the wrong hands, such as allegedly was the case with NSO.

Quoting an unnamed source familiar with the meeting, the newspaper said Shapira and his associates warned the Defense Ministry officials that if oversight of cyber firms wasn’t tightened, “this will blow up in Israel’s face.”

They were also said to be warned against the “dark side of technology” and that NSO’s activities could descend to such a level without greater oversight or guidelines on human rights issues.

Shapira and the other ex-officials from the State Comptroller’s Office suggested the Defense Ministry craft incentives to encourage cyber companies to adopt internal norms regarding the proper use of their technologies and to draft guidelines on how to prevent human rights abuses, according to the report.

“Representatives of CRT arrived at their request to a meeting with the Defense Export Controls Agency to request the Defense Ministry’s support for a service they were asking to offer to cyber exporters in the field of ethics. The meeting did not deal with NSO and we are not aware of any warnings that were made,” the Defense Ministry said in response.

CRT said it would not comment on meetings “that have happened or not” and denied seeking support or a recommendation from any regulatory body.

In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, a woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

In a bombshell investigation released lasth month, NSO was accused of selling the spyware to the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India and the United Arab Emirates, which used it to hack into the phones of journalists, activists and politicians.

Pegasus spyware can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest its data, and is at the center of a storm after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to human rights groups.

Israel’s defense establishment has set up a committee to review NSO’s business, including the process through which export licenses are granted.

Pegasus’s list of alleged targets includes at least 600 politicians, 180 journalists, 85 human rights activists and 65 business leaders.

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