JERUSALEM – Hacking software sold by NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance company, has been used to spy on journalists, opposition groups and rights activists. There have been so many accusations of abuse that the Biden administration imposed sanctions on the company last week.
But the company’s biggest funder, the government of Israel, views the software as a crucial part of its foreign policy and is pressuring Washington to blacklist the company, two senior officials said on Monday. Israelis.
NSO insists the software – which allows governments to remotely and covertly enter a phone, monitor its location, and extract its contents – is intended to help countries fight organized crime and terrorism .
But there has been a drumbeat of periodic revelations of abuse, with the company’s Pegasus software used to hack the phones of political opponents in dozens of countries.
The latest accusation came on Monday, when international computer privacy experts said Pegasus had been deployed against Palestinian human rights activists, raising questions as to whether the Israeli government itself was behind the piracy.
If the new claims are true, the case would be yet another instance of the software used against human rights defenders and the first known instance of its use inside Israel and the occupied territories.
The Israeli prime minister’s office and the defense ministry have denied that Pegasus was used to hack Palestinians’ phones. A spokeswoman for NSO said the company would not say who used the software and that it did not have access to information on who the program was used against.
But the fact that such reports led to a severing of relations with the United States alarmed the Israeli government, senior officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss issues of national security and diplomatic relations. .
In imposing the sanctions, the US Department of Commerce said NSO acted “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” If the United States accuses NSO of acting against its interests, officials said, then it is implicitly accusing Israel, which licenses the software, of doing the same.
Israel insists it maintains strict control over licenses, with a defense ministry review process established in part to ensure no trade deal jeopardizes Israel’s relations with the United States.
The campaign to lift sanctions against NSO and a second company, Candiru, will seek to persuade the Biden administration that their activities remain of great importance to the national security of both countries, officials said.
They also said Israel would be prepared to commit to much stricter supervision over the software license.
Aside from the Israel Defense Ministry’s review process, the global spyware market is largely unregulated. Those targeted by Pegasus spyware in the past include people close to Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and columnist murdered by Saudi agents in 2018; investigative journalists in Hungary; and avocados in Mexico.
The investigation revealing that the software was used against Palestinian rights activists, first reported by the Associated Press, did not identify with certainty which government used Pegasus in this case.
“But it raises many questions about the role not only of the ONS, but also of Israel,” said Adam Shapiro, spokesperson for Front Line Defenders, a Dublin-based rights group that led the campaign. investigation with Amnesty International and Citizen. Lab, a University of Toronto-affiliated cyber watchdog.
âThere are only a limited number of options that might be plausible here,â Mr. Shapiro said, âand the Israeli government’s previous actions raise real questions about what is going on here and serious doubts about the denials made by the government. “
The latest accusations mark the convergence of what were previously two separate diplomatic issues for Israel: its ban last month of six Palestinian rights groups it accused of being the front of a banned militant group, which sparked many international critics, and his long-standing support for the ONS, which operates under state licenses.
The analysis indicates that four of the six Palestinians whose phones were hacked were employees of banned groups.
According to the policy of the Israeli government, Pegasus cannot be used by a foreign government against Israeli phone numbers, such as those belonging to Palestinians from banned groups. An Israeli government agency, however, would have the power to use the software against an Israeli number.
This policy, coupled with the charges of the new analysis, raised questions about whether the Israeli government had used spyware against Palestinian rights defenders.
The Israeli government last month claimed that the six Palestinian groups raised funds for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and other countries. .
The groups, which have been the subject of an Israeli investigation since the beginning of this year, have collectively denied the Israeli claims.
Citing secret evidence it has not made public, Israel’s defense ministry said the groups had received donations from European countries and institutions intended to be used for humanitarian and rights-related activities, and rather channeled this money to the Popular Front. Officials said the designation of the six organizations was based on a lot of additional intelligence, including classified information that was presented to several intelligence and law enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, declined to answer questions about the content of this additional, classified information, or whether it was obtained with NSO spyware.
“Solid and unequivocal information has been presented linking the activities of the organizations concerned to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” said a spokesperson for the Shin Bet.
A May Shin Bet document summarizing part of this investigation, obtained and verified by the New York Times, provided no conclusive evidence of a conspiracy between the groups and the Popular Front. However, an Israeli official said that this summary did not detail the main evidence against the six groups.
The Popular Front rose to prominence in the 1960s, when its members hijacked several passenger planes, and claimed responsibility for attacks during a Palestinian uprising in the 2000s, including the assassination of Rehavam. Zeevi, an Israeli minister.
Israel said Popular Front members controlled the finances of the six banned groups.
The Six Groups – Addameer; Al-Haq; Bisan; Defense for Children International-Palestine; the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees; and the Union of Agricultural Labor Committees – say they are being targeted to silence their work of reporting human rights violations.
The six groups are variously involved in documenting abuses committed by Israel; by the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank; and by Hamas, which rules Gaza. They also represent Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons and promote the rights of children, women and farmers.
Some of the groups have provided evidence to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court who are investigating Israeli politicians and military officials, including current Defense Minister Benny Gantz, for possible war crimes. They often shared documents and testimonies with leading international rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and were frequently cited in international media.
The document summarizing parts of the Shin Bet investigation was initially provided by the intelligence agency to European donor groups and US officials in an attempt to persuade the latter of the legitimacy of their investigation. A version of it was first leaked last week to two Israeli news outlets, +972 and Local Call, and a US partner, The Intercept.
But instead of detailing specific evidence against the six groups, the document focuses on the allegations against a seventh organization, the Health Work Committee. It mainly contains allegations, obtained during Israeli interrogations, by two former Health Work Committee accountants who were fired from their posts in 2019.
The two accountants claimed that the other banned organizations were controlled by members of the Popular Front, but sometimes conceded that some of the allegations were based on speculation.
The Irish and Dutch governments have said Israel has yet to provide credible evidence of the six groups’ links to terrorism.
But an Israeli official said the purpose of the leaked dossier was to persuade Europeans and Americans of the guilt of the Health Work Committee, not the other six groups, and that more conclusive and more secret evidence on the six organizations had been found. provided to US officials. these last weeks.
“We reject the claim that the material presented to various US entities is circumstantial and unsatisfactory,” a spokeswoman for the Shin Bet said.
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel; and Myra Noveck of Jerusalem.