Revealed: Israel’s cyber-spy industry helps world dictators hunt dissidents and gays
Haaretz investigation spanning 100 sources in 15 countries reveals Israel has become a leading exporter of tools for spying on civilians. Dictators around the world – even in countries with no formal ties to Israel – use them eavesdrop on human rights activists, monitor emails, hack into apps and record conversations
By Hagar Shezaf and Jonathan Jacobson Oct 20, 2018
During the summer of 2016, Santiago Aguirre divided his time between part-time university lecturing and working for an organization that helps locate missing people. Mexico was then in the news internationally because of presidential candidate Donald Trump’s promise to build a wall on the American border with its southern neighbor. However, for Aguirre, a Mexican human rights activist, the problems of the present were far more pressing than any future wall. At the time, he was in the midst of a lengthy investigation to solve the mystery of the disappearance and presumed murder of 43 students in the city of Iguala two years before. It was becoming increasingly clear that his findings were incompatible with the results of the investigation conducted by the government.
Aguirre wasn’t concerned when he received a series of text messages containing broken links. “Please help me with my brother, the police took him only because he is a teacher,” one message read. And another: “Professor, I encountered a problem. I am sending back my thesis, which is based on your dissertation, so that you can give me your comments.” The messages looked no different from many of the legitimate messages he received every day as part of his work. And therein lay the secret of their power. When Aguirre clicked on the links, however, he was inadvertently turning his smartphone into a surveillance device in the hands of the government.
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“Those text messages had information that was personal,” Aguirre notes, “the kind of information that could make the message interesting for me so I would click. It wasn’t until later that I actually thought – well, it is actually pretty weird that I received three messages with broken links.”
Mexican human rights activist Santiago Aguirre, left, and colleague Mario Patron. Centro Prodh
The discovery had a brutally chilling effect on the work of his organization. For the first time, he says, speaking with Haaretz by phone, he really and truly feared that every step he took was being watched, and that perhaps his family too was under surveillance.
“Over the past 10 years, we have a figure of around 30,000 people who disappeared” in Mexico, Aguirre explains. “Many places in Mexico are controlled by organized crime. It has under its influence and power the authorities of some regions of the country, so they use the police to detain and then disappear people that they think are the enemy. I can tell you of many examples in which the Mexican military, for example, has presented the work human rights defenders as [benefiting] the drug cartels and organized crime. So there’s a pattern of thinking about the human rights sector in Mexico as a sector that needs to be surveilled.”
The public revelation of the fact that Aguirre was under surveillance was made possible by cooperation between Mexican organizations and the Canadian research institute Citizen Lab. It turned out that Aguirre was one of a group of 22 journalists, lawyers, politicians, researchers and activists who were being tracked by local authorities. An examination of Aguirre’s telephone revealed that the links in the text messages were related to Pegasus spyware, which the authorities were using.
But how did Pegasus get to Mexico? The trail of the malware led to Herzliya Pituah, the prosperous Tel Aviv suburb that is one of the major hubs of Israel’s high-tech industry. It’s there, in a narrow stretch of land between Israel’s coastal highway and the Mediterranean Sea, that NSO Group, the company that developed this Trojan-horse program, has its headquarters. Pegasus, which Forbes magazine called “the world’s most invasive mobile spy kit” in 2016, allows almost unlimited monitoring, even commandeering, of cellphones: to discover the phone’s location, eavesdrop on it, record nearby conversations, photograph those in the vicinity of the phone, read and write text messages and emails, download apps and penetrate apps already in the phone, and access photographs, clips, calendar reminders and the contacts list. And all in total secrecy.
Pegasus’ invasive capability was rapidly transformed into dazzling economic success. In 2014, less than five years after entering the world from a space in a chicken coop in Bnei Zion, a moshav in the country’s center, 70 percent of the company’s holdings were purchased for $130 million. The buyer was Francisco Partners, one of the world’s largest private equity firms, which specializes in high-tech investments. That deal followed Francisco Partners’ earlier purchases of Israeli firms Ex Libris and Dmatek, According to Reuters, a year after the NSO takeover, Francisco Partners enjoyed a profit of $75 million.
But the big money of NSO is only a small part of the big picture. Within a few years, the Israeli espionage industry has become the spearhead of the global commerce in surveillance tools and communications interception. Today, every self-respecting governmental agency that has no respect for the privacy of its citizens, is equipped with spy capabilities created in Herzliya Pituah.