Report: Israeli spyware helping dictatorships track dissidents, minorities

From Indonesia to Qatar to Mexico, investigation by Haaretz finds Israeli firms continue to sell their products to governments even where there is evidence of abuse

Illustrative image of conceptual cyber attack code. (DaLiu/iStock by Getty images)
Illustrative image of conceptual cyber attack code. (DaLiu/iStock by Getty images)

Israel has become one of the world’s main exporters of spyware and other kinds of offensive cyber technologies. According to a Friday exposé in the Haaretz daily, while Israeli companies offer the products as tools for counterterrorism or to combat organized crime, in many cases, it has also been used by dictatorships to spy on dissidents.

Products by the Israeli firm Verint, for example, have helped authorities in Mozambique combat a spate of kidnappings, and in Botswana fight against illegal poaching. But according to former employees at several companies who spoke with the newspaper, in countries like Indonesia the tracking tools also helped the government piece together criminal cases against gays and religious minorities who then faced charges for homosexuality and heresy, considered crimes by local authorities.

Some of the products, such as Herzliya Pituach-based NSO’s Trojan-horse software Pegasus, are well-known. Pegasus allows governments to hack into their citizens’ cellphones, to listen to calls and even simply to conversations taking place near the phones. It has been implicated in Mexico’s tracking of government critics in recent years.

The investigation, based on 100 sources in 15 countries, including many current and former employees of the Israeli companies producing the cyber products, concluded that the Israeli regulatory bodies that are supposed to ensure that exports aren’t used for illegal or immoral purposes by the client governments are not stopping the sales even when there is clear evidence of abuse.

Some studies of the spread of Israeli spyware suggest the products are now deployed by state agencies in as many as 130 countries, including some that have no diplomatic relations with the Jewish state, like Gulf Arab nations Qatar, Bahrain and UAE, as well as nations with poor human rights records like Swaziland, South Sudan or Angola.

Verint offices in Herzliya, Israel, July 28, 2016. (AP Photo/Dan Balilty)

“I can’t limit the actions of the client,” said one employee, quoted with the pseudonym “Roi” to keep his identity secret. “I can’t sell someone a Mercedes and then tell him to only drive 100 kph [62 mph]. The truth is that the Israeli companies don’t know how their system will be used once they are sold.”

Another former employee, “Tal,” related how a theoretical question in a training exercise turned out to have immoral real-world consequences.

“I was training [clients on the use of Verint software] in Azerbaijan,” related Tal. “One day, the pupils came to me during a break and asked how they could [use the software to] determine someone’s sexual preference on Facebook. It was only later, when I read about the issue, that I discovered the country is notorious for persecuting the [LGBT] community. Suddenly things came together.”

Israeli software is famous among Persian Gulf governments, one source said. “They know that the best technologies come from Israel.”

Israel’s technological prowess is no accident. The burst of the high-tech bubble in 2000 was accompanied by the start of the Second Intifada, leading to a simultaneous crisis in the private tech industry alongside a boost in Israeli defense spending. That combination channeled top programmers toward the defense industries, and helped build today’s world-leading Israeli offensive and defensive cyber industries.

It’s not clear whether Israeli regulators could stop the flow if they wished. Many Israeli tech firms have opened European subsidiaries to sell the sensitive technologies in countries like Cyprus and Bulgaria.

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