עינב שיף
Einav Schiff
Photo: Nimrod Sonders
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai

Use of NSO spyware proves Israeli democracy closer than ever to demise

Opinion: Police's alleged use of Pegasus malware against civilians is a nightmare come true - irresponsible corporate interests working hand in hand with a corrupt institution - proving Israel is much more like its neighbors than it seems

Einav Schiff |
Published: 01.19.22, 23:29
Over the last decade, and particularly during the political turmoil of the last couple of years (both in Israel and around the world), the fear of "the end of democracy" has become an involuntary reflex.
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  • Pieces of legislation that wouldn't even make it past a preliminary reading, tangy statements against the gatekeepers, investigative reports that reveal a conspiracy in every email — about anything these days is labeled "unprecedented" as our system of government as we knew it may be coming to an end.
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    Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai
    Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai
    Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai
    (Photo: Elad Gershgorn, Shutterstock)
    The real danger that this ritual holds — apart from the loss of sanity involved in obsessive consumption of this kind of content — is that it obscures our perception of events and processes that truly infringe on our rights and liberties. And not in some distant, far-fetched scenario, but right now.
    Consider the moment the State of Israel, unlike any other democracy in the world, employed an excessive counterterrorism tool to spy on its citizens. Or when the entire government, be it its right or left flanks, supported Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar's bill that would allow the police to barge into homes without a warrant.
    It is clear to which side of the spectrum belongs yesterday's Calcalist exposé, according to which Israel Police purchased and used the Pegasus malware against civilians who were not suspected of any wrongdoing (including political activists) or were suspected of offenses that did not meet the merit criteria to justify legitimate investigative measures. And all this, allegedly, in the absence of judicial supervision.
    Even before we got confirmation from the press, it was clear that NSO Group and the corrupting toy it developed were not an outlier in the Israeli landscape.
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    This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021
    This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021
    This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021
    (Photo: AFP)
    NSO — which was caught in a devastating tailspin, the kind that makes it easy for the parties involved to shake the cyber firm off like a bad case of the fleas — is not some pesky weed that sprouted from under a broken tap.
    The company, as well as the background of its personnel and the institutions in which they acquired their knowledge, are an organism that carries the DNA of the system, and therefore understands it better than anybody else.
    To those who did not get sucked down the political rabbit hole, it was clear as day even beforehand that law enforcement holds tremendous power that justifies close scrutiny and endless suspicion.
    But even had it not been an unlikely scenario, the converging interests of NSO and Israel Police is a nightmare come true.
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    NSO headquarters in Herzliya
    NSO headquarters in Herzliya
    NSO headquarters in Herzliya
    (Photo: Orel Cohen)
    On the one hand, a tech company that sells weapons of mass destruction of privacy. On the other hand, an institution that holds a monopoly on violence to maintain order but is also weak and deterred after years of wearying missions, organizational decay and political stifling.
    And thus, irresponsible corporate means and an unchecked police force came together to prove that Israel is much more like its neighbors than it seems.
    Although the police purchased the hacking tool in the days of former commissioner Yohanan Danino, the one who allegedly promoted more widespread use of the infamous Pegasus software was his successor, Roni Alsheikh.
    Is it really that surprising to hear that the former deputy director of the Shin Bet did not see fit wasting his time on gathering evidence or legitimate investigations when he could simply use tactics taken out the Palestinians' playbook against Israeli civilians?
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    רוני אלשיך
    רוני אלשיך
    Former police commissioner and Shin Bet deputy director Roni Alsheikh
    (Photo: Amit Shabi)
    This is what they mean by "occupation". It creeps from one place to the other, not out of sight, but out of mind, until it gets to your phone.
    It's funny to recall how back in 2015, the right mocked the left's fear of appointing a commissioner who cut his teeth in the dark realm of the Shin Bet.
    On the other hand, both the left and large parts of the media fell in love with the albatross of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu's criminal investigations, while ignoring disturbing events that took place in his shift in real-time.
    The NSO debacle is a watershed moment for an untamed industry, and it is highly unlikely this would be the last we hear of its escapades on our long and glorious journey to rock bottom.
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    האקר האקרים מתקפת סייבר אילוסטרציה
    האקר האקרים מתקפת סייבר אילוסטרציה
    (Photo: Reuters)
    The police's list of blunders, as always, runs for miles, from staged PR stunts to the harrowing revelations of the state inquiry into the Mount Meron disaster.
    But this story is bigger than just these two organizations because it points out that the real drama here is not the inevitable clash between corporate and state, but the cooperation between them.
    And this, if you were wondering, has the biggest potential to truly bring "the end of democracy."
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