Over the past several weeks we have seen reports that Israel spyware firm NSO Group’s Pegasus technology was being used for more than the monitoring of terrorists and other bad actors. We learned of allegations of the technology’s use against journalists, opposition figures and critics of authoritarian rulers in Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Kazakhstan and elsewhere.
And in each story, it seemed that the State of Israel itself was being singled out as the chief culprit, rather than the company that actually sold the technology. The reality is, however, that with Pegasus-like highly specialized and sensitive technology, “the government” has to sign off on its licensing and transfer. That’s as true in the U.S. as it is in Israel.
Israeli spyware companies are an integral part of a highly specialized and competitive international industry. Indeed, the Pegasus story is another chapter in the ever-expanding Startup Nation epic, in which Israel transformed within just a few generations from a poor, beleaguered state to a technological powerhouse, able to punch well above its weight in the international market.
We take pride that Israel is among the most developed, advanced and productive countries in the world in the highly sophisticated hi-tech space. And as a major player in that world marketplace, Israel has an opportunity to help lead in the development of meaningful standards for international governance of the industry.
As recently explained in a Jewish Insider interview by Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), the vice chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and a former assistant secretary of state, the industry is largely unregulated. As a result, there was nothing “improper” about the NSO sales. But, as Malinowski said, that’s exactly the problem: “I’ve been concerned for some time about the completely unregulated ‘hacking for hire’ industry that has emerged in recent years. The NSO Group is just one example. This is not really a story about one company from one country,” he said, adding, “What the NSO Group did was perfectly legal. My point is that it shouldn’t be. And that’s on us to fix.”
Further, Malinowski said that “Much of this technology is the product of collaboration between intelligence and national security agencies in Western democracies and private industry. My argument is that that’s where it needs to stay. The United States needs to get together with our allies and put in place some rules to ensure [that the improper release of sophisticated military grade technology] can’t happen again.” He called on the United States to lead the change.
We agree. And we encourage Israel to join in the effort. Israel has graduated to the “grown-ups table” for discussion and consideration of sensitive, international hi-tech business issues, and is in a unique position to contribute meaningfully to the regulatory discussion and its practical implications. The Pegasus story is a wake-up call. We look forward to the thoughtful development of protocols and procedures to codify standards for the future transfer of sensitive technology.