top of page

Israel’s cyber surveillance tech puts strategic ties with allies at risk: analysis

Is the US trying to establish new rules for the export of these technologies?

Israeli cyber firm NSO Group's exhibition stand is seen at "ISDEF 2019", an international defense and homeland security expo, in Tel Aviv, Israel June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Keren Manor
Israeli cyber firm NSO Group's exhibition stand is seen at "ISDEF 2019", an international defense and homeland security expo, in Tel Aviv, Israel June 4, 2019. REUTERS/Keren Manor

The ongoing saga of Israeli companies exporting surveillance and offensive hacking cyber tools is not dying down. In fact, as time passes, it becomes more and more similar – in terms of severity and handling – to the Jonathan Pollard affair, which cause major, long-term damage to Israel’s strategic relations with its partners.

At the heart of the problem lies the exposure of essential intelligence capabilities, which are central to the cross-country collaboration. This can be vaguely compared to the Enigma machine, the cipher device cracked by the British, which greatly contributed to the Allies’ WWII triumph. The British kept this top secret for many years after the war ended.

When the US Department of Commerce blacklisted Israeli “offensive cyber” companies, it basically announced that an ally nation-state enabled its top intelligence community members to transition to the industry and expose such capabilities. This hurst American national security.

This is the only way to explain these serious measures by the Department of Commerce, without alerting Israel’s Ministry of Defense ahead of time.

Human rights violations and invading the privacy of world leaders and journalists are important, but are second-chair – although in official publications, for obvious reasons, they are cited as the top reasons.

Much like during the Pollard years, it appears that also these days urgent discussions are taking place behind the scenes between Israeli defense officials and colleagues in the US.

Israel has also opted for a similar procedure – withdrawal tactics. Results are also the same. Presentation after presentation, argument after argument – all are firmly rejected by the Americans, and only serve to aggravate the situation.

Israeli leaders were caught off guard. The Prime Minister and Minister of Defense were on the receiving end of urgent phone calls, while the latter also flew to France to provide explanations.

The initial responses Israel provided its allies were rejects. The Ministry of Defense sent its people to the headquarters of the cyber companies, in order to review the findings.

The excuse of “it’s not us, it’s the end user’s fault” has also been rejected.

The Ministry of Defense had to issue urgent new instructions and narrow the list of countries to which such technologies can be exported. This is basically admitting that the previous licensing policy was faulty.

This move from Israel was also rejected, as it seems. Last week, US lawmakers – including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, called to sanction the blacklisted companies.

Basically, any solution that is not a full and complete stop of surveillance and offensive hacking technologies will be rejected.

And now those companies, alongside their investors, are reviewing their next step. They are starting to realize that the game has changed. Various media reports about the intention to sell to foreign investors indicate to that.

This is a hot potato. American investors won’t rush in. The State of Israel will have to find a way to prevent the selling of knowledge to unauthorized entities. We will be able to estimate the extent of US pressure by the legal actions that Israel will take.

The answers that Israel’s defense officials are providing the Americans are meticulously reviewed. Evasive answers will only make things worse.

Mistakes will cause unexplained delays of intelligence collaboration, in the most sensitive and critical areas, and might also end in an American demand to dismiss seniors and completely alter the cyber export policy.

As it appears, this widely-breached sphere is now undergoing radical change. The Americans will try to establish new rules and close the barn doors.

The author was the commander of Unit 8200, the IDF’s Intelligence Directorate’s main information gathering unit, between 1993-1997. Many of Israel’s cyber execs got their start at that unit.

15 views0 comments
bottom of page