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Shir Hever discusses the strategy of the Israeli offensive cyber company NSO, its roots in the notorious Israeli “8200” military intelligence unit, and how it crossed a line that very few companies dare cross.

Story Transcript

GREG WILPERT: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Arlington, Virginia.

WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, launched a lawsuit against the Israeli company NSO Group, a company that specializes in cyberattacks, hacking and spying. Facebook had discovered that NSO hacked 1,400 WhatsApp users in 20 countries, including the United States. The program that NSO created to do this is called Pegasus or Q Suite. The hacking software makes a video call from an unknown number to the target of the attack. Even if the call isn’t answered, the Pegasus user can control the hacked phone and even log keystrokes to obtain passwords entered on the phone. Facebook launched the lawsuit, suspended Facebook profiles of NSO workers and also informed the 1,400 users of WhatsApp whose phones were hacked. It also claims that the security breach in WhatsApp has been fixed.

NSO Group argues that it only sells its programs to authorized law enforcement agencies of governments, and solely for the purpose of fighting terrorism. However, the Canadian based cybersecurity organization, Citizen Lab argues that it found 100 cases in which NSO Group used the program to attack human rights activists such as in Mexico and the UAE. Even more concerning is a report from Abdulaziz, a Canadian activist of Saudi origin, who says that NSO Group hacked his conversations with Washington Post reporters, Jamal Khashoggi, on behalf of Saudi Arabia, which then led to the murder of Khashoggi in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul last year.

Joining me to discuss the WhatsApp hacking case is Shir Hever. He’s a Real News correspondent based in Heidelberg, Germany and is the author of the book The Privatization of Israeli Security, which was published by Pluto Press in 2017. Welcome back, Shir.

SHIR HEVER: Thanks for having me, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: So let’s start with what you can tell us about NSO Group. It’s a company that boasts that its workers are graduates from the Israeli military intelligence unit, known as 8200. What is this unit and why is this relevant to the way that the NSO Group operates?

SHIR HEVER: So the unit 8200 is one of the most prestigious units in the Israeli military and many Israeli candidates in the military try to get into that unit because they know it will guarantee them a job in the high tech sector, especially in the cyber security sector. And what the unit itself does, is to survey mainly Palestinians, and use SIGINT technology. SIGINT is signal intelligence, meaning that they eavesdrop on phone conversations, use surveillance cameras and biometric machines to track people’s movements and conversations, and to record everything they say.

And about five years ago, a group of 8200 officers launched a letter, a protest letter. And from that letter we can learn quite a lot about what this unit is doing, and they said that they are prying into the private lives of Palestinians in order to later blackmail Palestinians using that information. For example, if they have a sick member of their family, they would use that information to put pressure on that Palestinian, give us information or your sick relative will not get medical treatment. Or if they know that somebody is secretly a homosexual, they would use that information and say that “we will out you unless you give us information.”

So this is what the unit is doing. And NSO Group, which is a company created by the graduates of that unit, is a company that offers offensive cybersecurity, meaning that they survey very aggressively. Hack into phones, they boast that they can even hack the iPhone, and get information for their clients, for the customers. And there’s an Israeli journalist, Hagar Shezaf from Haaretz newspaper. She managed to interview some members of the NSO Group. And from her interviews she was able to surmise that, unlike other cybersecurity companies, NSO Group is willing to cross red lines and is willing to use industrial espionage and to survey and hack people’s phones, even in the United States, something that most companies are very much afraid to do. But NSO Group is willing to cross that line and that’s the reason that they’re being sued right now.

GREG WILPERT: Now, Facebook actually has a branch in Israel, and it often cooperates with the Israeli authorities, even providing Israeli police with personal data of Facebook users, so that they can use algorithms to identify people that it wants to arrest before they commit a crime. So why did Facebook actually decide to launch a lawsuit against NSO in a federal court in San Francisco, and not in Israel?

SHIR HEVER: So about three years ago, the Israeli minister of police Gilad Erdan, the Minister of Internal Security, said that Facebook has blood on its hands. Because according to him, there are people who are Palestinian terrorists who are planning to make attacks and are writing their plans, openly, on Facebook. But Facebook refuses to allow the Israeli Government to access that information, to collect data from people in order to arrest them preemptively. Now this was something that was initially very laughed at, because why would Facebook take such a statement seriously?

But then, to the horror of many activists, Facebook decided to cooperate with the Israeli government and allowed the Israeli government to access this information. And in fact, a lot of activists, who are in solidarity with the Palestinian Freedom Movement, have noticed that their Facebook accounts have been closed or censored, posts have been taken down, and Facebook groups have been closed by the Facebook corporation. Because I think Facebook wants to be on the side of the Israeli government, not out of some kind of ideology, but because they know that the Israeli government has more resources and funding and also the pro-Israeli movement has more money than the Palestinian Freedom Movement.

But I think now we get a better glimpse of what Facebook really thinks about Israel and Palestine, because Facebook is quite aware that when, for example, the victims of NSO hacking in Mexico, those human rights lawyers and human rights activists who were investigating the disappearance of the students, and their phones were hacked by this Pegasus program. They hired an Israeli lawyer and launched a lawsuit against NSO Group inside Israel. And of course that didn’t bring them anything, because there is complete impunity in Israel to companies that violate human rights and soldiers that violate human rights. Soldiers such as the members of the unit 8200.

And in this kind of environment of impunity, the Israeli legal system cannot be trusted to seek out what’s right and to protect the rights of victims, especially if these victims are not Israelis. Just now we are hearing that Israeli Supreme court rejected the appeal of Omar Shakira, the head of Human Rights Watch, just because the Israeli government wants to deport him, accusing him of supporting the BDS movement, which Human Rights Watch does not, actually. But the fact that he’s being deported anyway, and I think all the Israeli legal system is aware, the judges, the lawyers, they’re all aware that this is a complete sham, but they’re afraid.

They’re afraid because the Israeli government, the current Minister of Justice Amir Ohana has said we shouldn’t be listening to judges when they make rulings that are relevant to politics because they have not been elected, so they don’t speak for the people. And this kind of populist, anti-judicial system talk, means that the Israeli judges are just afraid. So there is no way that they’re going to rule against an Israeli company, NSO Group. But a federal court is much more likely to take this lawsuit seriously, of course if the fine that will be levied on NSO Group will be large enough, that company will go bankrupt.

GREG WILPERT: Now, despite your criticisms of Facebook, isn’t it positive that Facebook is at least launching this lawsuit and that this action could help protect future victims of NSO Group from surveillance?

SHIR HEVER: Well, on the face of it, yes. And of course if NSO Group goes bankrupt because of this lawsuit, that would be a good thing. We don’t want to have these kinds of offensive cyber companies operating and risking civil society activists and human rights activists around the world. But we also have to understand what it means when a private corporation like Facebook launches a lawsuit like this, not in order to protect the privacy of its user, but rather in order to protect the prestige of its product, WhatsApp. And WhatsApp has this kind of image of a peer to peer encryption program that is supposed to be secure, and when Facebook has to admit that 1400 users have been hacked, then this is something that hurts their market value.

So that’s why they’re launching a lawsuit. But what I’m really wondering is, where is the criminal side of this? The criminal legal side of this, of protecting the rights of citizens. And here we expect, not a corporation, but rather governments to rise up to the occasion and launch lawsuits against NSO Group. Or actually not even launch lawsuits, this is a matter that justifies arresting the workers at NSO Group, for charges of espionage and violating human rights. So this is what is really important here, and the more commercial issue, and commercial law, about whether NSO Group has damaged the prestige of WhatsApp, the company, the product is the small part of this story.

GREG WILPERT: Well that actually leads to the next question, which is, what else can governments do, or should they do, to protect their citizens from private multinational corporations that engage in this kind of surveillance on them, and invade their privacy?

SHIR HEVER: I think we’re now in the middle of a period where there is a lot of privatization of security. Where governments are stepping back from their obligation to provide security to their citizens, because they know that companies are going to take that load from them. And because those companies are also lobbying politicians and making sure that the politicians step aside and let them take this market that used to be completely under government control and turn it into another private sector. So now Facebook is taking a kind of regulatory role, that you don’t expect a corporation to take, by going after NSL Group.

But on the other hand, if we say what we want is that government regulation would put a stop to companies like NSL Group and prevent them from operating, then it does raise the very difficult question, how are they going to do that? Do we expect governments, for example, to survey themselves? To do counter-surveillance? And to clamp down on freedom of speech? And to say that certain companies, the kind of information that they are providing or the kind of programs that they are providing is violating human rights, so that should be stopped. And who will make sure that the government is not using those regulatory tools that are supposed to protect citizens from surveillance as tools to prevent civil society organizations from speaking up and raising important issues?

So that is actually a dilemma. And I think this could be solved only by creating regulatory bodies that are independent, that are not directly answerable to politicians and to parliaments, but rather bodies that also include members from civil society and members from academia and members who are experts on the field, that will come up with ways to create regulation that really protects the rights of the users of social media and the rights of citizens.

GREG WILPERT: Now finally, what can individuals do to protect themselves from this kind of surveillance? I mean, would it be better not to use WhatsApp at all, or to be careful with what we write?

SHIR HEVER: Yeah, I think that’s another issue that… I see a lot of the coverage on the story of the lawsuit of Facebook against NSO Group that people are saying, “Well why don’t you use another messaging program? for example. I don’t want to do any kind of commercials for alternative messaging programs. People should make up their own decisions. But I do want to say, that the power of SIGINT, the signal intelligence that the unit 8200 is doing, and companies like NSO Group are doing, is that it silences free speech because people are afraid that everything they say is being recorded and could be used against them in the future.

And if you already sensor yourself, then they’ve actually succeeded in controlling the public discourse. So being careful about what you say on these platforms has a very heavy cost to it. And I think the best protection against this kind of surveillance, and this kind of attempt to control the discourse in silenced dissident voices, is not to censor ourselves, but rather to be very open about what we say and to publish our criticism openly so that we don’t have to be afraid that people are going to survey on us in order to collect that kind of information, because it’s already in the public sphere.

GREG WILPERT: Okay. Well that’s very interesting, but we’re going to have to leave it there. I was speaking to Shir Hever, Real News correspondent based in Heidelberg, Germany. Thanks again Shir for having joined us today.

SHIR HEVER: Thanks, Greg.

GREG WILPERT: And thank you for joining The Real News Network.

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Dr. Shir Hever grew up in Israel and now lives in Germany. He has been reporting on Israel/Palestine stories for 16 years, and for the Real News specifically since 2016. He’s the author of two books and many articles, and is a committed member of several Palestine solidarity groups.