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How Israel used the NSO Group to further its diplomacy

  • 29 Jan 2022

A private company in search of profits or a state asset masquerading as a legitimate business - what role did the NSO Group play in furthering Israeli diplomacy?

The US administration has announced that it is putting new export limits on two Israeli hacker-for-hire companies, including the well-known spyware company NSO Group. ( AP )

For years the Israeli government provided export licences necessary for the country's most famous spyware company, the NSO Group, to sell its products worldwide.

Those spyware products were sold to numerous countries, effectively turning smartphones into pocket spying devices.

But to what extent was this ostensibly private company headquartered in Israel also acting to further the state's interests and not just for profit?

The company was founded by former members of Israel's famous Unit 8200, a signals intelligence outfit with many of its staff primarily drawn from the same division or other intelligence units in the country.

That the company would ultimately become enmeshed in the country's diplomatic activities to win support around the world for Israel against the backdrop of its occupation of Palestinian land is probably not surprising. But the impact that the NSO Group has had in some key diplomatic victories for the country in recent years is now only just coming to light.

According to a report by the New York Times, the Abraham Accords' success — which resulted in the normalisation of relations between several Middle Eastern states and Israel — was in part facilitated by access to spyware that states had received from the NSO Group.

From its inception, the NSO Group submitted itself to oversight and control by the Israeli state. The company, after all, had found the holy grail of spyware. Essentially one of its most important products, the Pegasus spyware programme, could provide access to any mobile phone in the world, and all that was needed was the telephone number of the targeted user.

The targeted individual wouldn't even need to click on malware — the NSO Group — had made a technological leap in spying ahead of anyone else.

Since the Israeli state oversaw who the technology was sold to and how it was used, the temptation to leverage what seemed like an intelligence goldmine was too great to resist.

"With our Defense Ministry sitting at the controls of how these systems move around…we will be able to exploit them and reap diplomatic profits," said one former military aide to Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking to the New York Times.

For decades, large and powerful industrialised nations have leveraged their weapons industry to further their diplomatic and global power. A country's very survival could depend on whether Russia, the US or, for that matter, the UK, France and China, to name a few, sold enough weapons to ensure a country's internal cohesion or to repel would-be foreign foes.

The digital revolution has of course not eliminated the need for physical weapons. Still, it has meant that smaller countries like Israel, with a unique competitive advantage in software technology, can offer countries around the world cutting edge software weapons that give their users unparalleled insight into electronic communications.

Another potential diplomatic pay-off for Israel is when the NSO Group sold its spyware to Mexico ostensibly to be used against the country's numerous drug cartels.

It was later revealed that the technology by the Israeli company was also used against thousands of journalists, lawyers, activists, prosecutors, diplomats, teachers, judges, doctors and academics in the country.

But for Israel, the pay-off politically seems to have been a gradual shift by Mexico in how it votes at the UN.

For decades Mexico, a member of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), had voted on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the movement did and against the Israeli occupation.

Around 2017, Mexico started abstaining from resolutions in support of Palestine or ones that condemned Israel in international bodies. While Israel has denied that it linked its contracts to conditional diplomatic support, some have suggested that barring any other developments, the coincidence might not be far-fetched.

As claims that the NSO Group had facilitated countless countries to spy on critics, US authorities late last year blacklisted the Israeli firm by restricting exports to it from American groups over allegations the Israeli firm "enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression."

Critics, however, have pointed out that not only was the US government itself a client of the NSO Group, but it had bought software for countries like Djibouti, a country with a less than stellar human rights record.

The Israeli companies' woes could just be beginning. Now companies in the US are lining up to sue the NSO Group. Apple in November last year sued the Israeli spyware maker, seeking to block NSO Group from targeting the more than one billion iPhones in circulation.

Israel's new government has distanced itself from the NSO group saying that it has nothing to do with the policies of the Israeli government.

Israeli diplomacy might very well soon find that one of its most important diplomatic assets in recent years finds itself mired in the same controversies as that of that state, mainly operating beyond the law and becoming an international pariah.

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