Israel Is Dangerously Close to Legitimising the Use of Pegasus on Its Citizens

The discourse on the 'correct' process of a government approving the use of a Pegasus system is very convenient for surveillance companies like NSO who do brisk business in the meantime.

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For many years, despite a long chain of revelations about the involvement of the Israeli company NSO and its spyware system called Pegasus, in attacking journalists, opposition and human rights activists around the world, and despite the company being blacklisted by the US, most of the media, politicians and public in Israel commented with indifference and lack of interest.

Only after it was revealed recently in the Calcalist newspaper that the system was used by the Israeli police against Israeli citizens, that there is suddenly a huge interest in Pegasus in Israel.

For example, health minister Nitzan Horowitz, head of the Meretz party, suddenly woke up and announced that he was demanding that the Attorney General open an investigation. The issue was of less interest to him when it came to citizens of India, Hungary and Azerbaijan that were attacked with Pegasus.

The media and public debate in Israel, focuses on the claim of the Calcalist newspaper that the use of the Pegasus system against Israeli civilians was done without court orders. The Attorney General and the police themselves announced that they would investigate all cases in which the system was previously used and verify that this was indeed done in accordance with judicial orders. It seems that if the Attorney General comes to the conclusion that the police did act by virtue of court orders, the public storm in Israel will subside and there will again be no interest in the exploits of the NSO company overseas.

If some fault is found, the Israeli government and parliament will probably work to legitimise Pegasus-type systems by enacting a legislation that will legalise their use inside of Israel.  

If the Pegasus type systems are legitimised for use inside of Israel, there will be no way to prevent their export to other countries, that might also copy-paste the updated Israeli legislation. In the last few days, both the government and the parliament in Israel voted against amendment to the Israeli defence export act from 2007, that suggested to include considerations of human rights in the export policy of the Ministry of Defense.

Also read: A Look at How Pegasus Brings the Best of Technology to Achieve the Worst

The discourse of focusing on the correctness of the procedure for approving the use of the Pegasus system has also been done in other countries, such as Ghana and Poland. This is a discourse that is very convenient for surveillance companies like NSO as this way they can continue business as usual under weaker or stronger regulation depending on the nature of the regimes in different countries.

The problem is that there is no regulation that can remove the fear from a totalitarian technology like Pegasus and the temptation to exploit it for political purposes.

Despite claims by the NSO company, which has never released statistics that substantiate them, that the Pegasus system is used mainly to fight crime such as pedophilia, narco-traffickersand human trafficking, all over the world most politicians do not wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and ask themselves how they are going to fight pedophiles. Most politicians get up in the morning and ask how they keep their seats, can strengthen their position, and fight their opponents. This is the nature of the politician from the beginning of history.  

Moreover, the Pegasus system is not a magic solution for the lack of political will in different countries to deal with criminal networks.

For example, drug trafficking in Mexico is linked to narco-politics, immense corruption and the proliferation of security and intelligence forces as part of the failed US war on drugs. Another example, for many years human trafficking flourished in Israel and the US’s TIP Report in 2001 named it a Tier 3 country (the lowest possible rating). Since 2012 Israel has been rated Tier 1 each year, and only last July again downgraded to Tier 2.

The change didn’t come because of Pegasus – it was a result of the criticism by the US State Department and public and legal activism by international and Israeli human rights organisations that created political will in the Israeli government.

Similarly, all over the world, including in democracies, courts are struggling to deal with claims by security and intelligence services that an urgent warrant is needed to approve the use of surveillance systems to protect state security and prevent terrorism. In most states, security and secret services can in certain circumstances apply for such a warrant on a unilateral basis and on the basis of confidential evidence. Many times, the evidence is information from an intelligence source that is getting payment for his collaboration, from the same security and secret services that applied for a warrant. 

My personal experience as an Israeli lawyer is that at least in the Israeli court system the use by the security and secret services of the code words “national security” influences the judges to switch to “autopilot” mode and approve everything.

Also read: CJI’s National Security Ruling Not Relevant Says Kerala HC, Upholds Ban on MediaOne Channel

Also, the temptation is too much for countries that have systems like Pegasus’s already in their hands, to sell them to other countries to ensure the stability or support of the regimes that govern their interests.

The Netanyahu governments in Israel have been using Pegasus diplomacy to gain support in international forums and promote normalisation with oppressive and dictatorial regimes. According to the NYT, Netanyahu even forced the renewal of Pegasus license to the Saudis after the journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed and dismembered.

In years past, others and I have invested a lot of effort in convincing the public that systems like Pegasus are no different from conventional weapons. The effect of the Israeli Ministry of Defense approving licenses to sell guns that will be used to kill protesters, is similar to it approving the sale of surveillance systems that would allow arrest and indictment of opposition activists and later the torturing and possibly killing or disappearing of them.

More and more it is becoming increasingly clear that systems like Pegasus are similar to unconventional weapons which endangers the future of all humanity and all the progress it has made since the second half of the 20th century for freedom. It is a departure from the spirit of international conventions that were written as a lesson from the horrors of World Wars I and II, European colonialism and the Holocaust of the Jews of Europe.

Also read: Revealed: How The Wire and Its Partners Cracked the Pegasus Project and What It Means for India

As is well known and well documented, the State of Israel was a major arms supplier to the apartheid regime in South Africa and among the few countries who continued to play this role. If in those years there was a Pegasus system, the Israeli Ministry of Defense would have probably approved its sale to Pretoria. In that case, perhaps the apartheid regime would have continued even after 1994 and liberation movements would not have been able to end it.

But it’s not just a fear that the world is becoming more and more like George Orwell’s 1984, or like China and Russia. Humanity cannot face the urgent challenges it faces in a world where Pegasus-type systems are widespread.

For example, in order to deal with the climate crisis, it is necessary to strengthen a free civil society, the independence of journalists and the freedom of expression of academics and activists for environmental protection and the rights of indigenous communities. These are fighting in front of huge political and economic centres of power that are comfortable ignoring the climate crisis and silencing their critics.

It is probably too late, but given the enormous dangers of Pegasus-type systems, they need to be addressed not by tightening regulation, but by outlawing them, both in terms of their trade with other countries and for internal use by countries already in possession of these systems.

Eitay Mack is a human rights lawyer and activist based in Jerusalem specialising in the issue of Israel’s arms trade. He filed the petitions to revoke the NSO and Cellebrite defense export licenses, petitions to revoke the defence export licenses to the Philippines, Uganda Cameroon, Myanmar, Ukraine and Vietnam, petitions to reveal the Israeli involvement in Rwanda and South Africa, and participated in writing the bill banning the export of defence-related goods or services that could be used to violate human rights mentioned in the article above