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Israeli spyware used by foreign states to target dissidents, LGBTQ citizens: Report

Countries buying Israeli technology have used it to spy on and blackmail members of LGBTQ community, Haaretz newspaper reports
Spyware sold by Israel firms allows users to eavesdrop on phones, record nearby conversations, and read and write text messages, among other things (AFP)

Israeli technology firms are selling spyware to countries with poor human rights records, which then use it to crack down on political, religious, and sexual minorities, according to a report published on Friday by Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

The investigation, amassed from conversations with over 100 former and current employees of Israeli tech firms, revealed that multi-million dollar spyware sales to foreign governments have continued even after those governments were shown to have been using the software against dissidents.

"Everyone in this field knows that we are manufacturing systems that invade people's lives and violate their most basic rights," a source working for an Israeli spyware firm, told Haaretz under the pseudonym, Yaniv.

According to the newspaper, these spyware apps allow individuals to uncover a phone's location, and then "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".

You can't sell someone a Mercedes and tell him not to drive faster than 100 kilometres an hour

- 'Roy', Israeli cyberware professional

NSO, the Israeli firm behind one of the best-known spyware apps, Pegasus, says its products are used to prevent crimes, including "the prevention of suicide attacks, the arrest and conviction of heads of drug cartels, the investigation of complicated crimes and the return of kidnapped children to their parents".

However, no real oversight exists to ensure that governments purchasing these technologies use them for legitimate purposes, Haaretz reported.

"I can't constrict my client's capabilities," an Israeli cyberware professional - using the pseudonym, Roy - told Haaretz. "You can't sell someone a Mercedes and tell him not to drive faster than 100 kilometres an hour."

Complicit in rights abuses?

The Haaretz report suggests that Israeli firms may be complicit in the human rights violations committed by the governments that purchase their products.

When the technologies are transferred to client states, the deals often include training sessions led by employees of the Israeli firms.

"I'm telling foreign trainees about the system's capabilities, and they pounce on it and start to place people under surveillance for negligible reasons, right before my eyes. Someone was critical of the president's move to raise prices, someone else shared a hashtag identified with the opposition - and in an instant, they're both on the surveillance list," another veteran of the industry told Haaretz, using the pseudonym Tomer.

One source told Haaretz that spyware technology was used in Indonesia against a non-Muslim public figure who stood accused of heresy, while another source told the newspaper the technology he taught customers to use was later deployed to oppress LGBTQ citizens in Azerbaijan.

This source's trainees "wanted to know how to check sexual inclinations via Facebook", the source told Haaretz. "Afterwards, when I read up on the subject, I discovered that they're known for persecuting the [gay] community there."

Israeli spyware technologies have long been used to target Palestinian members of the LGBTQ community.

In 2014, dozens of Israeli reservists, many of whom served in the army's Intelligence Corps, publicly declared they would no longer take part in spying operations against Palestinians, stating that these were "used for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society by recruiting collaborators".

The latter refers to the alleged Israeli practice of blackmailing closeted LGBTQ Palestinians and using threats of publicly revealing their sexual orientation to force them to spy on their neighbours.

Spyware exported to at least 130 countries

Israel has the most surveillance companies per capita in the world, Haaretz reported.

According to a 2014 parliamentary report, the Israeli government grants permits to sell security products to no fewer than 130 countries worldwide.

Israel's defence  inistry says it supervises security exports according to international conventions and standards.

However, more than a dozen countries criticised for human rights violations were found to have purchased Israeli-made spyware in recent years, Haaretz reported, including Ethiopia, Indonesia and Nicaragua.

Some of these client states, such as Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, also have no formal diplomatic relations with Israel. To get around this hurdle, and to benefit from cheaper labour and less stringent government regulations, Israeli tech firms often create shell companies to sell their wares.

These shell companies are often based in Cyprus, or in countries on the Black Sea coast, such as Bulgaria, Moldova and Ukraine.

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