November 8, 2021 by Ethics in Tech board member Brett Wilkins for Common Dreams

Activists from Palestinian groups recently designated “terrorist organizations” by Israel’s government expressed outrage and resolve Monday following revelations that their phones were hacked with Pegasus spyware, and amid the exposure of a sweeping facial recognition surveillance campaign in the West Bank by Israeli occupation forces.

“It’s difficult to describe the feeling of invasion and intrusion into privacy,” Ubai Al-Aboudi—one of six Palestinian activists whose cellphones were found to be infected with Pegasus, a spyware manufactured by the private Israeli company NSO Group and used to target journalists and dissidents around the world—said in an interview with Haaretz.

Al-Aboudi, the executive director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development—a progressive civil society group and one of six Palestinian NGOs designated “terrorist organizations” by the Israeli government last month—was responding to a report published Monday by Amnesty International’s Security Lab and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab revealing that their devices had been hacked.

The report, which analyzed data collected by the human rights group Front Line Defenders, notes that the hacking occurred before Israel designated the six groups terrorist organizations.

“For the three days after the attack was discovered, my wife couldn’t sleep,” Aboudi said. “Everyone’s been thinking about the personal things that they’ve talked about. Planting spyware is organized state terrorism designed to control civil Palestinian society.”

Deborah Brown, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, tweeted Monday, “In case there was any doubt, technology powers apartheid.”

The new Pegasus revelations followed a report published Sunday in The Washington Post that the Israeli government is running a massive effort in the illegally occupied West Bank to monitor Palestinians using facial recognition technology integrated with surveillance cameras and smartphones.

According to the Post:

The surveillance initiative, rolled out over the past two years, involves in part a smartphone technology called Blue Wolf that captures photos of Palestinians’ faces and matches them to a database of images so extensive that one former soldier described it as the army’s secret “Facebook for Palestinians.”

The phone app flashes in different colors to alert soldiers if a person is to be detained, arrested, or left alone. To build the database used by Blue Wolf, soldiers competed last year in photographing Palestinians, including children and the elderly, with prizes for the most pictures collected by each unit. The total number of people photographed is unclear but, at a minimum, ran well into the thousands.

The program was exposed by two Israeli Defense Forces members who belong to the veteran-based human rights group Breaking the Silence. One of the IDF whistleblowers told the Post she felt compelled to speak out because she believes such surveillance is a “total violation of privacy of an entire people.”

Another former IDF soldier said he was deployed to take as many photographs of Palestinians as possible and upload them to Blue Wolf. He told the Post that while children were often willing to pose for photos, elderly people—especially women—would resist and that photographing them against their will was a traumatic experience.

Yaser Abu Markhyah, a 49-year-old Hebron resident whose family endured Jewish colonization, ethnic cleansing, and the repression of Israeli occupation for five generations, said mass surveillance is robbing Palestinians of what little remains of their privacy.

“We no longer feel comfortable socializing because cameras are always filming us,” he told the Post, adding that he does not allow his children to play outside.

Issa Amro, one of Abu Markhyah’s neighbors, noted the number of Palestinian families who have left the neighborhood due to Israeli restrictions and surveillance.

“They want to make our lives so hard so that we will just leave on our own, so more settlers can move in,” Amro told the Post. “The cameras only have one eye—to see Palestinians. From the moment you leave your house to the moment you get home, you are on camera.”

The Blue Wolf and fresh Pegasus revelations come days after the U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group “for engaging in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”

The agency said Pegasus and Candiru—another Israeli firm—”developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers.”

The digital rights group Access Now pointed to the new Pegasus revelations as proof of the need for a moratorium on spyware sales, a move advocated by activists including exiled NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.

“Over the last year, spyware allegations and revelations have dominated the headlines on an almost daily basis,” Natalia Krapiva, tech legal counsel at Access Now, said in a statement. “From Palestine to Hungary, governments have had unbridled access to private information of activists, journalists, and regime critics, without any clear legal basis through technology like Pegasus.”

“We need an immediate moratorium on the sale, transfer, and use of these invasive surveillance technologies,” she added.

Al-Aboudi, who is a dual Palestinian and American citizen, said he will fight back against those responsible for hacking the activists’ phones.

“As a father, husband, human rights defender, and U.S. citizen I will explore all options to hold the people responsible for this hack accountable for their violations,” he told The Irish Times. “For me, it’s part of a systematic attack on human rights defenders and the values of democracy and freedom.”

(Photo: Cyprien Hauser/Flickr/cc)


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