Are Israel’s spies stealing your data?

Graduates of Unit 8200, a technology-focused division within Israel’s military, are involved in major spying controversies. 

Israeli military/Chameleons Eye

Israeli spies go on to pursue questionable careers upon leaving the military.

Two cyber warfare and data collection companies that have recently been put under scrutiny were founded by graduates of the Israeli military’s Unit 8200, a high-tech spy branch responsible for the training of some of the country’s top technology experts and leading cyberwarfare efforts.

Israeli tech company Onavo, owned by Facebook, and Israeli cyber warfare company NSO Group were both founded by unit veterans.

This demonstrates how expertise developed in the unit can and has been used to create commercial tech platforms that put consumer security at risk.

What does the military unit do?

Unit 8200 is widely seen as Israel’s equivalent to the National Security Agency in the United States.

Its members are young, usually between 18 and 21, and are chosen for their math, science and problem-solving talents.

Those working within the unit help the development of surveillance tech, hacking, encryption and decoding techniques. They also gather internal and foreign signals and are responsible for cyber-policing and monitoring civilians.

Unit 8200 also plays a significant role in the systematic discrimination against Palestinians.

In 2014, 43 reservists affiliated with Unit 8200 revealed details of surveillance methods used to pry on the most intimate private data of innocent Palestinians, including material of a sexual and financial nature.

“The Palestinian population under military rule is completely exposed to espionage and surveillance by Israeli intelligence. While there are severe limitations on the surveillance of Israeli citizens, the Palestinians are not afforded this protection,” the soldiers wrote in a letter published by The Guardian.

Despite the widespread media coverage this received, the monitoring of Palestinians by Unit 8200 continues.

The Palestinian campaign group 7amleh outlined in a report released in December 2018 how the unit intercepts Palestinian communication networks and injects them with text messages and phone calls.

Stealing data

Unit 8200 veterans are dominating Israel’s technological scene. Technology is key to Israel’s economy and has enjoyed fast growth in recent times.

Former unit soldiers have gone on to found notable tech companies, including Palo Alto Networks and Check Point Software Technologies. These companies specialize in areas of security such as surveillance, voice recording and cybersecurity.

Another such group is the Facebook-owned Onavo.

The company was founded in 2010 by Unit 8200 graduates Guy Rosen and Roi Tiger, and acquired by Facebook in October 2013.

Facebook marketed the Onavo virtual private network (VPN) app as a privacy tool to keep users’ data secure and protect it from potentially compromising websites by encrypting and re-routing their data through a remote server.

Consumers were kept largely in the dark about the ways it would violate their privacy and help influence Facebook’s marketing and product strategies.

However, the Onavo VPN app was shut down last year after it emerged that Facebook was paying teenagers and adults to download the app and provide “nearly limitless” access to their data, according to the publication Tech Crunch.

After Apple banned the app for being in breach of its guidelines, Facebook exploited a loophole that would allow people to circumvent the App Store and download the app directly.

But while this hid all browsing and app activity from Internet service providers, it granted Facebook almost full visibility of a user’s data, giving the technology giant insights into consumer trends.

These insights led to Facebook’s decision to implement a story feature as a means of competing with its rival Snapchat. It also led to Facebook’s acquisition of WhatsApp for $19 billion after discovering that more than twice as many messages were sent off that app than Facebook Messenger.

Commercialization of surveillance

This is not the only time that a company linked to Unit 8200 has been the topic of a major consumer security scandal.

Israeli espionage firm NSO Group was founded in 2010 by Omri Lavie and Shalev Hulio, likely graduates of Unit 8200, according to Forbes magazine.

The group made headlines in May after the messaging service WhatsApp released an update to combat a vulnerability that allowed a user’s smartphone to be infected with the Pegasus spyware by simply calling the phone in question.

Once Pegasus is installed on a user’s phone, it can send a frightening amount of data to those doing the spying while going undetected.

Pegasus has been labeled by Forbes as the “world’s most invasive mobile spy kit” as it allows for the full monitoring and commandeering of any mobile phone that becomes infected.

These capabilities have led to its use by regimes eager to snoop on or interfere with their enemies.

In a 2018 report, the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab highlighted the use of NSO technology in countries known for human rights abuses, including Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Amnesty International even took legal action against Israel’s defense ministry in an attempt to get the exportation of NSO products revoked.

Amnesty said that one of its staff was the target of an effort to spy on the organization through the software.

That Unit 8200 is behind Facebook’s Onavo and NSO raises concerns for what other commercial technology could emerge, or already has emerged, from the spy unit.

With mass surveillance common practice, it’s reasonable to assume that Unit 8200 graduates will continue to use this technology in the creation of commercial products.

The actions of NSO and Facebook’s Onavo have shown techniques mastered in the unit can easily be misused to create products that put consumer privacy and security at risk.

Consumers should therefore be aware of any ties companies have to Unit 8200, as well as its role in the surveillance of civilians.

Katherine Barnett is a researcher at VPN review site Her writing focuses on global censorship, digital rights and cybersecurity. Twitter: @thekatbarnett