The Citizen Lab is an interdisciplinary digital research laboratory based at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. In July 2021, it “outed” NSO, an Israeli digital spy organization which has been involved in spying on Palestinians and on international human rights organizations like Amnesty International. Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper has also been involved in another Israeli company selling similar spy technology. Read more…
On July 18, the Canadian research organization Citizen Lab released to the public an independent review of Israeli spyware called Pegasus, which had infiltrated cell phones of Amnesty International employees and dozens of journalists around the world.
Pegasus is a product of NSO, an Israeli company whose principals include former members of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Pegasus is alleged to have been deployed by foreign governments against dissidents, journalists, diplomats and members of the clergy, with several alleged victims in the UK. Its clients have included Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary and India.
The mobile phones of six Palestinian rights workers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank were also hacked using NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, according to Amnesty International and Citizen Lab.
In all, it appears that NSO had identified at least 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide. Sixteen news outlets from around the world teamed up to publish the “Pegasus Project,” an investigation into how NSO Group’s spyware was being used by its various clients.
The project revealed how NSO Group spyware hacked the phones of journalists, human rights activists, and business executives. Among the more significant findings was proof that Pegasus spyware hacked the phones of two women close to Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist murdered by agents of Saudi Arabia in 2018.
Then, on December 3, it was reported that phones of at least nine U.S. State Department employees had been hacked by an unknown assailant using NSO spyware. The new findings led to NSO being blacklisted by the U.S. Commerce Department.
It is not known at this time whether any Canadian human rights organizations phones have been penetrated by NSO.
The Canadian connection
NSO is not the only Israeli company which has used military technology for espionage purposes.
Former Prime Minister Stephen Harper heads the advisory committee of AWZ Ventures, another Israeli company which sells cutting-edge surveillance technology including to the United Arab Emirates — a country with a troubling human rights record.
AWZ Ventures finances Israeli surveillance technology systems, including facial recognition and crowd detection systems and services that deliver comprehensive information on individuals in real time. In addition to Harper, AWZ “leadership team” includes former Canadian cabinet minister Stockwell Day and former CSIS director Richard Fadden as well as former members of the CIA, FBI and the Israeli intelligence unit Mossad.
Unsavory work as early as 2016
The first report of the Group’s spyware was published in 2016, when Citizen Lab discovered that NSO software had been used to hack the phone of Ahmed Mansoor, a Dubai-based blogger. The spyware enabled the repressive regime of the United Arab Emirates to turn Mansoor’s iPhone into a walking surveillance device, recording his movements and phone calls. Mansoor was arrested by the UAE in March 2017; he remains in prison today.
Practicing on the Palestinians
The work of the NSO Group and Harper’s AWZ group has revealed a particularly unsavory aspect of Israel’s military control over Palestinians: the revolving door between the Israeli army and an unregulated private surveillance industry run by veterans who learned spycraft by tracking a captive Palestinian population and selling that know-how to authoritarian governments.
“During Israel’s repeated offensives against the Palestinians, telecommunication and internet services were allowed to function so as to make the job easy for the Israeli authorities to watch the Palestinians more effectively”, according to Palestinian analyst Yousef Aljamel. “Artificial intelligence has been increasingly used by the Israeli security, and the surveillance of Palestinians by Israel has become ever more automated.“
World wide criticism
Since that first Citizen Lab report, NSO has been the subject of a stream of investigative reports uncovering how its authoritarian clients have routinely turned their product on dissidents, journalists, and politicians.
The NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware is “extremely invasive, extremely intrusive,” said David Kaye, a professor of law at the University of California, Irvine and the former United Nations rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. “It’s different from earlier tools in that it provides clean access to a mobile device, where so much of our private life is stored. Our regular real-time conversations are also accessible to the person or entity doing the surveilling.”
Meanwhile, a recently-opened exhibit at Montreal’s Musée d’art contemporain entitled “Terror Contagion”, documents how Pegasus was used to target journalists and human right workers. The exhibitors allege that Pegasus was developed and tested on the Palestinians, then exported to repressive governments around the world for profit. Israel’s advocates in Canada are panicking and have denounced the exhibition. “Terror Contagion” runs until April 18, 2022.
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