War crimes advocate advises Israeli spy firm

Man in military uniform sits in front of computer

Veterans of Israel’s Unit 8200 cyberwarfare arm, founded NSO Group, a company that helps oppressive governments spy on human rights defenders and journalists.

Israeli military Chameleons Eye

Amnesty International is calling on Israel to bar a cyber warfare company from selling its technology internationally.

A court in Tel Aviv heard the case against NSO Group on Thursday, which is being brought by dozens of members and supporters of Amnesty’s Israel branch.

Amnesty International and New York University School of Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and Global Justice Clinic are supporting the legal action. They are calling on Israel’s defense ministry to revoke NSO Group’s export license.

“NSO continues to profit from its spyware being used to commit abuses against activists across the world and the Israeli government has stood by and watched it happen,” said Danna Ingleton, a tech specialist for Amnesty.

The Tel Aviv court complied with a request from the defense ministry to hold the session behind closed doors.

Ingleton called this a sign of the “cozy complicity between governments and the shadowy surveillance industry,” and an effort “to avoid the full glare of public scrutiny.”

Gil Naveh of Amnesty Israel said this kind of concealment has become routine practice, especially when there is “widespread evidence of misuse,” as in the case of NSO Group’s products.

Danger of the malware

NSO Group was founded by two veterans of Unit 8200, a high-tech spy branch of the Israeli military, seen as the equivalent of the US National Security Agency.

Veterans of Unit 8200 have revealed how their job included gaining information about Palestinians to be used for “political persecution.”

NSO Group produces a sophisticated cyber weapon called Pegasus which allows its operator to hijack smartphones undetected and send private data back to those doing the spying.

The espionage firm claims it only sells Pegasus to governments. But Amnesty notes that it is sold to “governments known to abuse human rights,” and is demanding its export license be withdrawn entirely.

The malware has been used to target human rights activists, journalists and government officials in dozens of countries.

Suspected operators include Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Kazakhstan.

Using a security vulnerability in WhatsApp, NSO Group also enabled the hacking of American citizens’ phones.

Amnesty International’s own staffers were targeted by the Israeli firm.

The human rights group’s lawsuit is not the only legal action against NSO Group.

Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz sued the Israeli company in December 2018 alleging that NSO Group violates international law by selling its software to governments that abuse human rights.

Pegasus was apparently used to intercept conversations between Abdulaziz and slain Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. They were close friends.

Khashoggi disappeared after entering the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on 2 October 2018, where he was killed and dismembered by a hit squad sent from Saudi Arabia.

On the board

Just a year after Khashoggi’s killing, The Washington Post hired Juliette Kayyem, a senior adviser to NSO Group, as a columnist.

By hiring Kayyem, the newspaper hired someone linked to a company that Abdulaziz believes was involved in the killing of Khashoggi, another Washington Post columnist.

NSO Group announced Kayyem’s hiring as it launched a new “human rights policy.”

The other advisers it hired alongside Kayyem are Gerard Araud, the former French ambassador to the United States and Israel, and Tom Ridge, the former US secretary of homeland security.

Daniel Reisner, former head of the Israeli army’s legal department, also serves as a senior adviser.

Notably absent from the roster is anyone with any notable history of working for human rights.

Reisner, who reportedly also serves on NSO’s “ethics” committee, is a particularly glaring choice for a company trying to convince the world that it cares about protecting people’s rights.

He has argued that international legal prohibitions on attacking civilians or using them as human shields – such as in Israel’s so-called “neighbor procedure” – can be eroded if they are violated frequently enough.

“If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it,” Reisner told Israel’s Haaretz newspaper in 2009.

“The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries.”

Reisner was speaking in the immediate aftermath of an Israeli assault on Gaza that killed 1,400 Palestinians during three weeks of intensive bombing.

That makes Reisner an advocate not for human rights, but for war crimes.

Meanwhile, NSO Group recently hired Sharon Shalom, former chief of staff at Israel’s defense ministry, to manage the company’s “global political apparatus.”

Shalom worked under former Israeli defense minister Avigdor Lieberman, who heads the far-right party Yisrael Beiteinu.

“Shalom is crossing the line, as it were, from the supervisor to the supervised, following a long tradition in Israeli government and industry,” Haaretz said.

Israel’s chief military chief, Brigadier-General Ariella Ben-Avraham, is also negotiating a position at NSO and has submitted her resignation from the army.


Tamara Nassar

Tamara Nassar is an assistant editor at The Electronic Intifada.