Israel relaxing export controls on cyber weapons despite rights concerns

Israel relaxing export controls on cyber weapons despite rights concerns

Critics say that spyware and other tools are abused by client governments which allegedly include Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates

Illustrative image of a computer hacker using a smartphone (stevanovicigor; iStock by Getty Images)
Illustrative image of a computer hacker using a smartphone (stevanovicigor; iStock by Getty Images)

The Defense Ministry has eased its rules controlling the export of cyber warfare tools despite concerns that some client governments are using the technologies for human rights abuses.

Under changes implemented a year ago companies can now more quickly obtain sales permits for some cyber weapons and spyware, Reuters reported Thursday.

Whereas the approval process in the past could take up to year under the new rules that period can be cut down to as little as four months.

The ministry confirmed the changes to Reuters saying in a statement the alterations were made “to facilitate effective service to Israeli industries while maintaining and protecting international standards of export control and supervision.”

It noted that marketing licenses are only approved under “certain conditions related to the security clearance of the product and assessment of the country toward which the product will be marketed.”

In addition to the change in marketing rules, the Economy Ministry, which oversees the export trade, is setting up a special division to deal with exports of cyber technologies with offensive and defensive capabilities, the report said.

“This is part of a reform that is essentially allocating more resources to the economy ministry for this important issue,” an Economy Ministry spokesperson said.

Rights groups claim Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the clients for Israeli spyware. Government officials in both those countries did not respond to Reuters requests for more information and Israeli officials declined to say which countries in the region are spyware customers.

United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression David Kaye told Reuters that Israel’s control on cyber tools are “shrouded in secrecy” and called for all sales of the technologies to undergo a human rights review.

However, attorney Daniel Reisner from Herzog Fox Neeman, which represents many of the country’s cyber firms, told the agency that Israel’s restrictions are tighter than other countries, including the US and Britain, putting local companies at a “huge disadvantage.”

The moves come as Israel seeks to take develop its cyber warfare market, despite the concerns over what the technologies may be used for.

In June Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a cyber conference: “I think we have to take the risk, and it’s a considerable risk, of regulating less in order to grow more.”

Earlier this year Amnesty called on the Israeli government to employ stricter rules on export licenses for cyber tools which, it said, have “resulted in human rights abuses,” Reuters reported.

Israel is home to a number of top cyber defense companies, including NSO Group, which has faced criticism in the past over sales of its phone spyware technology Pegasus to regimes with poor human rights records.

In May Amnesty International petitioned the District Court in Tel Aviv to compel the Defense Ministry to revoke the export license it granted to NSO Group saying its products have been used “in chilling attacks on human rights defenders around the world.”

Amnesty said in a statement at the time that research has documented the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to target “a wide swath of civil society,” including at least 24 human rights defenders, journalists and parliamentarians in Mexico, an Amnesty International employee, Saudi activists and allegedly the murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared while visiting the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio has denied that Khashoggi was targeted with any of the company’s products.

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