Asharq Al-awsat English Middle-east and International News and Opinion from Asharq Al-awsat Newspaper

We’re Not Prepared to Live in This Surveillance Society

We’re Not Prepared to Live in This Surveillance Society

Tuesday, 27 July, 2021 - 05:00

Last week, an investigation by Amnesty International and several media outlets alleged that 37 heads of state, reporters, human rights activists and businessmen had been hacked with spyware developed by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group. The names came from a leaked list of 50,000 mobile phone numbers of individuals regarded “as people of interest” by NSO’s government clients. Around 600 of them are politicians or heads of state, ranging from French President President Emmanuel Macron to the King of Morocco.

NSO denies the charges. But the revelations as well as other evidence suggest that gross violations of privacy are becoming a norm rather than an exception. Traditional state agencies are struggling to keep pace.

The reason is simple: Most laws on privacy were passed in the age of postal services, landlines and physical newspapers. Today people conduct much of their lives online. They allow their mobile phones to record, wittingly or not, evidence of their deepest secrets. And the pandemic has moved more confidential business onto digital platforms that record their chats.

That makes our devices juicy targets for authoritarian states and bad actors, as well as for the private enterprise spies who have the tools to help them.

Yes, there are upsides to the prevalence of modern surveillance. More than 400 people who stormed the US Capitol on January 6, for instance, were arrested and charged because they left their digital “fingerprints” at the scene. Their locations were confirmed by GPS satellites, WiFi signals, videos and metadata — all collected from internet giants. It was another Israeli security company, Cellebrite, that unlocked and copied the contents of their mobile devices. One of the Capitol insurgents was asked on Facebook whether he’d been arrested: “No not yet anyway, lol.” Shortly after he sent that message, he was.

But the sophistication and ubiquity of surveillance techniques used by democratic policing agencies should raise questions about how far we’re willing to let governments listen in to our private lives.

Debate erupted when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the vast scale of the US government’s data collection program in 2013. Snowden’s revelations, however, did not show the government targeting individual reporters or human rights activists.

Pegasus was originally designed to help western governments target terrorists and major criminal networks. And NSO protests that it only sells spyware to governments approved by Israel. It also claims that its technology has saved many lives. But the balance of benefits and harms has to come under greater scrutiny. Amnesty claims that Pegasus has been used to target opponents of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government and dissidents to Viktor Orban’s Hungarian populists, among others.

NSO is looking less like an innovative company doing necessary work and more like one finding excuses for unacceptable snooping.

Already embroiled in a lawsuit with WhatsApp over allegations that it sent malware to more than 1,000 customers via its messaging app, Pegasus has also been mentioned in connection with the data snatch revealing Inc. founder Jeff Bezos’s extramarital affair. If Bezos isn’t safe from the snoopers, then who is?

And yet governments have been slow about figuring out how to control hacking software. Macron has shown seriousness by convening a rapid cyber-security meeting after the recent Pegasus allegations. And Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that export of NSO spyware should be restrained to democratic countries where there is judicial oversight.

President Biden, anxious to avoid conflict with Israel, should nonetheless make clear to the new government in Jerusalem that NSO, regarded as a spearhead of Israeli innovation and security, risks damaging the interests and reputation of its home country. The reported abuses are too wide-ranging to dismiss. The swift convening of a parliamentary commission in the Knesset into the matter effectively concedes that, contrary to previous denials in the Netanyahu years, there are serious ethical issues to answer for here. Failing to address them will look like negligence or worse on the part of Israel and the US.

The industrial scale of Pegasus and the breadth of its targets is a reminder that digital security lags far behind digital innovation. Spyware is the 21st century equivalent of arms: Its products are weapons of mass repression and surveillance. The whistleblowers on this occasion have done democracy a favor. Now, tardy governments need to act.


Other opinion articles

Editor Picks