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Analysis: It’s about time leaders assume accountability over surveillance tech

Updated: Jan 31, 2022

The NY Times draws a comprehensive map of interests between Israel and governmental clients of NSO Group's powerful spyware

REUTERS/Amir Cohen
REUTERS/Amir Cohen

The latest publication regarding NSO Group did not come at a good timing for the former prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu.

On Friday, New York Times journalists Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti published the findings of their year-long investigation into how Israel authorized the selling of the Group’s cyber surveillance products, most notably the Pegasus software and its derivatives, to various governments around the world in order to capitalize on political gains.

There have been endless reports over the past few years regarding how NSO’s products were used to target human rights activists, minorities, journalists, opposition leaders and more. They were mostly framed around how a commercial company developed a powerful product and is now selling it to paying customers – even if those customers end up using it for unspeakable acts.

But this is the first time the finger is directly pointed at the Israeli government and specifically at Netanyahu, its leader for over a decade – since before the company was even established. At least one, the then-Prime Minister explicitly went over the heads of the Ministry of Defense, the body responsible for authorizing cyber exports: he ordered the renewal of the expired Saudi export license, which the MoD declined. This was already after the Khashoggi murder.

There were various reasons Netanyahu promoted selling the Israeli spyware to countries which do not have the best human rights track record, according to the New York Times, from wishing to garner support for the Abraham Accords (Saudi Arabia), to backing Israel in the UN’s Economic and Social Council (India, Panama and Mexico are just a few examples).

Netanyahu’s spokesman denied the allegations set forth in the article, saying that the former PM never sought a quit pro quo regarding other countries buying Pegasus, and that those deals were no different than any others that require MoD approval.

NSO itself has always maintained the same line of defense to all unfavorable publications, as well as in court: that it is a commercial company which operates in accordance with Israeli law, selling to authorized government entities only, and does not have any control over or knowledge regarding the end user.

Between the light and dark side of the moon

Netanyahu is currently standing trial for bribery, fraud and breach of trust. A potential plea bargain with the current Attorney General of Israel, Avichai Mandelblit, who is generally considered to be favorable towards Netanyahu fell through. As Mandelblit is stepping down from his position in a few days, any plea bargain will now have to wait for his still unknown successor.

Of course, these latest NSO discoveries have nothing to do with what Netanyahu is charged with. But the court of public opinion is powerful – especially in light of the penultimate scandal regarding how Pegasus was used by Israeli police to spy against anti-Netanyahu activists, and do not serve to enhance his credibility.

Netanyahu could always argue that he (allegedly) did it all for the good of the State of Israel. And this clearly makes sense. It’s more than legitimate to use a country’s advantages as leverage, to promote its diplomatic, financial or other goals. It is basic, common sense. Especially considering the undisputed fact that Pegasus is also used for a lot of good: fighting organized crime, taking down a global child-abuse ring, thwarting terrorist plots and more.

But this is the light side of the moon. The dark side is full of human rights violation, death and destruction. And responsibility must not fall solely on the shoulders of NSO Group. The Israeli government must assume accountability and figure out ways to mitigate the damage, as do all other governments who have ever acquired and utilized these products.

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