On March 2020, Israeli surveillance company NSO Group made it into an exclusive list of "Enemies of Free Press", as compiled by Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Alongside it are a select few, a short list of 20 governments and organisations considered by RSF to be "press freedom's digital predators", all engaged in activities of surveillance and harassment aimed against journalists.
This is merely one exemplifying fact attesting to the Israeli-based company's unsavoury record. Various publications, in Israel and abroad, have repeatedly raised accusations connecting the company's technology with various incidents violating the freedom of the press, freedom of expression or the right to privacy, and have also tied its name with regimes abusing company-provided capabilities to harm and silence opposition and human rights activists.
Currently, NSO Group also faces a massive lawsuit, filed against it by Facebook, alleging that NSO's Pegasus programme was used for spying against activists and journalists by hacking into their accounts on WhatsApp (a Facebook-owned platform). The foregoing certainly has not been contributory to the company's advances in the capital market.
What did NSO do to mitigate damages? Among other moves, they provided financial sponsorship for a tech conference launched by Calcalist, the financial magazine of Yedioth Ahronoth media group (patriotically dubbed "Blue and White Conference"). Quid pro quo, Calcalist ran favourable stories, cleaning up the company's discredited image: a PR-oriented column by its VP "Client Executives" was featured, along with sugar-coated reporting and kid-glove interviews with founder and CEO, Shalev Hulio, and President Shiri Dolev, who were accommodated with an easy opportunity to fend off public criticism.
Incidentally, at the same time, the paper ran ads for another ironically-timed conference, "The First Shomrim Conference for Investigative Journalism" by HaShomrim (The Guardians) nonprofit. The organisation, which purports to serve as investigative journalism's guardian, is chaired by none other than Yoel Esteron, Calcalist's publisher.
Owing some trust and faith in Calcalist's staff, many of whom are professional, decent and honest journalists, I sought to publish a column in response to NSO's PR piece, only to be dismissed time and time again.
This is understandable: it's not easy for one to publish harsh criticism aimed against one's sponsors. Of course, one could also pre-emptively avoid such ethical conflicts by refraining altogether from taking money from patrons deserving of harsh criticism. Either way, before you is my response column.
A Smirch and a Blemish on the Israeli Hi-Tech
Ramon Eshkar, NSO Group's VP Client Executives, wrote a moving and festive column of the cyber-security company's brilliant, philanthropic deeds such as "taking part in meaningful activities such as locating missing persons, search and rescue – all entirely pro bono". The VP had found a media outlet in Calcalist newspaper and website to serve as his platform. This is hardly a coincidence. NSO is one of the sponsors of "Blue and White Conference", by Yedioth Ahronoth media group.
We have no way of ascertaining whether or not Eshkar's vivid descriptions are true, but they certainly are not fresh. We have heard the same key messages before, in NSO president Shiri Dolev's speech, replete with the age-old hush-hush bravado of "I wish I could share with you half of what we do". Dolev's speech was also given at the Calcalist conference. Experience has shown – whenever NSO Group makes a PR move, even under the auspices of a well-reputed outlet such as Calcalist's – one must always look around for what they are hiding behind their back.
Outside the reality contained within the walls of Calcalist conferences, some are willing and able to share what NSO actually does and how the company – along with the Ministry of Defence which provides the company's export permits – fails in controlling and preventing the use and abuse of a product that's a lethal and dangerous weapon for all intents and purposes.
The company's weapon finds its way into the hands of unreliable regimes, granting them the capability to attack human rights activists, harass journalists and silence any critical voices. The company's statements concerning its ability to control the use of this dangerous weapon remotely are inconsistent at best.
Normally, in NSO's case, the skeletons tend to parade their way out of the closet, perhaps due to such scandalous stories its name keeps cropping up in, time and time again; perhaps because they are simply not as good at covert-ops as they claim to be. Either way, the Ministry of Defence will rush to cover for them, as it does, regardless of (or owing to) the revolving door between high-brass ranks in state defence institutions and top-tier senior positions in cybersecurity companies.
"On the week where both Memorial Day and Independence Day take place, there's a special sentiment in the air", the VP embarks on his column, "All the senses rise and sharpen, essentially feeling what it means to be Israeli". Several billion WhatsApp users around the world, exposed by NSO to surveillance and spying, are probably feeling another sentiment altogether, than the one intended by the VP. Those of whom who live under regimes prone to human rights violations are probably seeing quite an unappealing angle of "what it means to be Israeli".
NSO's spyware has even brought Facebook, hardly the poster child for privacy, to sue the company in the Californian court, garnering support from tech giants across the globe. "What is Zionism? Does it still exist? What burden and responsibility lie behind the words 'I am Israeli'?", the VP goes on to wonder, resolving the rhetoric with the inevitable statement that NSO is indeed the epitome of "Zionism, Israelism and Morality". Meanwhile, in the real world, a long list of journalists and experts on cybersecurity, human rights and freedom of speech all point out NSO Group as a clear and present danger to citizens around the world.
NSO's VP repeatedly chants a mantra stating that the company's products are used solely by defence mechanisms and police forces, but is careful to omit some facts that had been proven time and time again: some defence mechanisms and police forces act against their own citizens, employing advanced technologies such as NSO's for ends other than the ones they were originally intended and developed for – counter-terrorism, prevention of crime and paedophilia, saving lives; even if NSO's ties to such violations or others were never proven beyond the shadow of a legal doubt, its name crops up time and time again (and again), branding the company as one that applies no discretion when it comes to the dissemination of its technologies, selling its wares to entities engaged in consistent, systematic and severe violations of human rights.
"I always like to see, read and hear examples", writes VP Eshkar. I would personally urge him to read some of the content that surfaces when you click the 'NSO' tag on Calcalist's website. Among those are several well-known examples from recent years, a stark reminder of severe human rights violations carried out using NSO products, besmirching the Israeli Hi-Tech industry the world over. Alas, I fear some of these examples might not be to his liking.
One such example for the beneficent activity NSO is so keen on flaunting, is the role played by Pegasus in both arrests of Mexican drug lord El Chapo. The company's CEO was quoted at the time saying that NSO had agreed to sell the platform to Mexico only after they were assured that it would be entrusted in the hands of a military unit of "Untouchables".
Since then, journalists have exposed that, while Pegasus might possibly had been used in one of El Chapo's arrests, it was also sold to at least three different Mexican security mechanisms, infamously renowned for their corrupt nature; formal investigations in the country found that the platform's operators had violated the law, using it to spy against politicians, journalists, citizens and even investigators of the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping case, in which 43 students were abducted and murdered in Ayotzinapa.
This is hardly a sole example. At the time of writing, journalist and human rights activist Omar Radi is standing trial in Morocco, following nine months of illegal detention, for having uncovered human rights violations and government corruption. On June 2020, a report by Amnesty International stated that his phone was hacked by the Moroccan authorities using NSO products. Two days later he was arrested. The authorities deny all allegations.
The most famous example of all, however, and the one denied by NSO wholly and vigorously, is that NSO products were used in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. This claim was made by Edward Snowden, who had even stated in videoconference in front of an Israeli audience that "this is not the security industry, this is insecurity industry".
Eshkar argues that the values represented by Zionism and Israelism are one and the same as NSO's. The first to agree with this assertion would be, no doubt to his great disconcert, the proponents of the BDS movement. Any person for whom the notions of Zionism and Israelism represent forces for good would want to wash their hands clean of NSO, calling for the Ministry of Defence to control the company's activity in earnest.
Gil Naveh is the Spokesperson of Amnesty International Israel. Amnesty petitioned to revoke NSO's exportation licence, claiming that the Pegasus surveillance programme was used in an attempt to hack into the phone of the organisation's employee. The Court dismissed the case. This, too, was published on Calcalist
This article was first published on The Seventh Eye. Read it in Hebrew here