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In wake of NSO scandal, Defense Ministry tightens restrictions on cyber exports

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

The Defense Ministry imposes new restrictions on the export of cyber warfare tools following major international backlash after Israeli-made surveillance software has reportedly been used against journalists, activists and political rivals by human rights violators around the world.

This summer, an international consortium of journalists reported that the Israeli firm NSO Group had helped governments spy on dissidents and human rights workers. NSO insists its product was meant only to assist countries in fighting serious crime and terrorism. However, due to the broad definitions some countries use for these offenses, the software appears to have been against a broad range of figures.

In apparent response to this, the Defense Ministry’s Defense Export Control Agency releases an updated version of its “end use/user certificate,” which more clearly defines what does and does not amount to terrorism and serious crimes “in order to prevent a blurring of the definitions about this,” the ministry says.

Terror is generally defined by the ministry as violent activities or threats of violence that are meant to intimidate a population, sway a government to act or not act, or destabilize a country or international organization.

However, the new form explicitly states that “an act of expressing an opinion or criticism… shall not, in and of itself, constitute a Terrorist Act” or a “Serious Crime.”

The regulation also prevents Israeli systems from being used “to inflict harm on an individual or a group of individuals, merely due to their religion, sex or gender, race, ethnic group, sexual orientation, nationality, country of origin, opinion, political affiliation, age or personal status.”

If these conditions are violated, Israel would have the right to revoke the export license. The Defense Ministry says these new regulations were developed by a joint team from the Defense and Foreign Ministries.

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