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With Pegasus, we’re approaching democracy’s point of no return

The reported use of this extreme and invasive spyware is a violation of basic human rights – and before being used on Israelis, it was tested on Palestinians
(iStock)
(iStock)

Imagine this: from the moment you wake up to the moment you go to sleep, someone is following your every move. They know what time you wake up—and even how many times you snooze the alarm on your phone. They know where you live, where you work, and everywhere that you’ve been. They know every conversation you’ve had, every event on your calendar, your banking details, and even every keystroke you’ve made on your phone. You may think you are alone or with friends and family, but you are recorded or filmed in your most private moments. This is Pegasus, and the threat we are facing: the end of privacy.

The right to privacy embodies the rights of every individual to their personal information, thoughts, ideas, and choices free from the scrutiny of the public or the government. Privacy is one of the most fundamental human rights, inextricably linked to all other rights. It precedes freedoms such as freedom of speech, freedom of expression, and freedom of religion. In the hands of governments, our personal data can be used to hinder the right to protest, obstruct the freedom of movement, inhibit the freedom of speech, effectively use racial profiling, and undermine the foundations of equality.

This central right is undermined in Israel again and again, in a predictable pattern: first, advanced technologies are developed by the private sector; next, these technologies are tested on Palestinians in the Occupied Territories; and finally, they are used around the world – including in Israel against citizens of Israel. Dubbed the “Start-Up Nation,” Israel prides itself on being a leader in cutting-edge technologies, but this innovation and entrepreneurship is also harnessed towards surveillance technologies.

We see new and complex surveillance systems, adopted for use by the Israel Defense Forces and the Israel Police, which then often “field test” these technologies, such as the “Blue Wolf” facial recognition system, and facial-recognition technologies used at checkpoints, using the Occupied Palestinian Territories as a “real world laboratory.” Without fail, these surveillance tools are then exported around the world and now, we see the same technologies being used against the Israeli public as well. While the recent revelations of new and alarming surveillance technologies may have shocked the Israeli public and international community, Palestinians in the West Bank have long been exposed and left unprotected to invasive surveillance technologies in the Occupied Territories, where there is little to no accountability, transparency, or regulation of these advanced surveillance technologies.

And yet these illegal surveillance tools are used not only in the Occupied Territories, where the military evades accountability under the guise of security, but also against citizens of Israel. The Israel Police is acting in defiance of Israeli law in using the “Hawk Eye” mass surveillance system, which tracks all civilians on the roads through license-plate recognition, and now seeks to adopt more technologies, including facial recognition. The General Security Services, which recently ended their COVID-19 contact tracing following our petition to the High Court, admitted to using a cellular tracking system to target and threaten Arab citizens last May. The Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) is fighting to establish clear limits on the use of these technologies, including legal actions against the “Hawk Eye” license-plate recognition system, against using racial profiling with technology to locate and intimidate Arab civilians, and against the intent of police and security services to expand the scope of what is permitted under Israeli law.

Israeli law regulates surveillance through legislation, such as the Wiretap Law, and stipulates multiple conditions for police use of wiretapping. Additionally, the police are required to report on their use of wiretaps and surveillance. According to reports in the Calcalist news site, in the case of Pegasus, the Israel Police not only used Pegasus without court orders and for purposes beyond investigating criminal offenses, but also did not report on its use – not to the Knesset nor to any other institution meant to safeguard the right to privacy.

We are already seeing the ways that advanced surveillance technologies threaten not only the right to privacy, but all human rights and civil liberties. In November, Front Line Defenders revealed that six devices belonging to Palestinian activists and employees of human rights organizations in the West Bank were hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. In January, a report by Calcalist revealed that Pegasus spyware has also been used by the Israel Police to hack the phones of Israeli citizens, allegedly including activists, government employees, mayors, and business leaders – all conducted outside of the law and without legal or judicial oversight.

The development and spread of these technologies aren’t just a slippery slope – we are quickly sliding towards a point of no return for democracy and human rights. These surveillance technologies pose a threat to privacy that can alter everything that we know about our rights and the fundamental relationship between a government and its citizens.

Facing this critical threat, we at ACRI are mobilizing all of our resources and expertise to face this threat. ACRI immediately appealed to the Attorney General, as well as the Minister of Public Security and the Police Commissioner, demanding the police stop using Pegasus – but also questioning how civilian law enforcement came to use an extreme and invasive form of surveillance against the citizens they are meant to serve and protect. We are working on both the legal and the legislative level to swiftly end this illegal and unprecedented surveillance wave.

The organizing principle of democracy is that unchecked power will ultimately lead to corrupt leadership and the undermining of rights and liberties. Pegasus, as well as other unlegislated, unregulated surveillance technologies, have demonstrated exactly this—a powerful, invasive tool developed and used to serve narrow political interests, was swiftly turned against citizens.

Pegasus not only critically threatens democratic institutions and human rights in Israel and the Occupied Territories, but all over the world. As the first public, legal and legislative debates of NSO’s technology take place in Israel, the implications will affect human rights all over the world. This is a crucial time in a struggle with potential for wide-ranging impact. Anyone who cares about democracy in Israel should follow closely.

About the Author
Noa Sattath is the executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), the country's oldest and largest human right organization. Noa is an ordained Reform rabbi and spent the past 11 years as executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC). Prior to IRAC, Noa served as executive director of the Jerusalem Open House for Pride and Tolerance, where she aided in the historic move to lead the first Pride march in the city.
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