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White Wolf, Pegasus, and Predator: Israeli Spyware Has Failed in Gaza

Nourhan Sharaf Eddine
Lebanese Journalist
Published on 27.11.2023
Reading time: 7 minutes

The Israeli intelligence failure in uncovering the October 7th, 2023 operation was a global shock. Israel is known to tightly control the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Additionally, Israel is one of the leading countries in espionage technologies. Does this industry remain the same after the war?

The Israeli intelligence failure in uncovering the October 7th, 2023 operation was a global shock. Israel is known to tightly control the lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Additionally, Israel is one of the leading countries in espionage technologies, and its economy heavily relies on the surveillance technology sector. This technology, initially developed within the Mossad, is then adopted by private companies that sell it to both repressive and democratic governments, which use it to spy on their targets. Investigations such as Pegasus and Predator, in which Daraj participated, revealed the use of these technologies for spying on journalists and political opponents. However, the primary victims are the Palestinians themselves.

The Current War Diminishes Israel’s Espionage Powers

Almost half of Israel’s exports, 18% of its GDP, and 30% of its tax revenue come from the technology sector. However, during this war, Israel had resorted to mobilizing over 300,000 reserve soldiers, marking the greatest number ever called up in its history. This means that over 300,000 students or individuals from the workforce in Israel or abroad were asked to forgo their education or jobs in order to serve in the reserve army.

Although the government did not officially state the percentage of the technology sector’s workforce called up for reserve duty, it estimates that 15% of workers in this industry have been summoned to serve in the army. This has affected Israel’s ability to meet the needs of its tech companies’ customers, and has disrupted the security of research and development centers working on projects in Israel, including Microsoft and Google.

For example, Tomer Simon, a scientist at the Microsoft Israel for Research and Development Centre, published a letter on the Israeli website Calcalist addressed to Tzachi Hanegbi, the head of the Israeli National Security Council. In the letter, he expressed concern about the future of the tech sector in Israel after this war.

On the other hand, Israel is exploiting the ground invasion to collect data on Gazans. In an instagram post, Gaza resident Baraa Al Muqayd wrote: “The occupation soldiers have erected a checkpoint-like structure on the street that the Palestinians use to travel from the northern to the southern part of the Strip. Palestinians are forced to pass through this checkpoint and stand in front of eight cameras that scrutinize passersby and their belongings. The occupation army compels them to lift their IDs to the camera to obtain their names, ages, and marital status.”

Palestinians Inside Israel: Testing Ground for Israeli Surveillance Technologies

Just as Israel tests its weapons on Palestinians, it also tests its espionage techniques to access the files of Palestinian institutions and activists within. Among them is Ubai Al Aboudi, the Executive Director at the Bisan Center for Research and Development, whose phone was hacked by Israel using Pegasus software on February 2, 2021.

Al Aboudi suggests that Israeli technologies affect several countries, not just Palestinians. “Our claim as an organization is that what is being developed to suppress the Palestinian people will also be used to suppress other nations, even in so-called European democracies. This is plain as day,” he explained. 

Indeed, spying techniques have targeted European activists and journalists as well. For example, the phones of more than 60 lawyers in Catalonia were hacked by the Israeli spyware Pegasus. In an interview with The New Yorker, Shalev Hulio, co-founder of the Israeli company behind Pegasus, the NSO Group, stated that “almost all European governments use our technology.”

In parallel with cyber restrictions, Israel continues its crackdown on the ground, as the Bisan Foundation has been subjected to numerous cyberattacks and email hacking attempts, particularly in 2019 and 2020. According to Al Aboudi’s statement to Daraj, Israeli agents also stormed the institution twice, stealing computers and all electronic devices, including cameras and lighting equipment.

“There is a systematic attack by the occupation regarding hacking and electronic targeting. To this day, the organization’s website and pages are subjected to daily hacking attempts,” said Al Aboudi. 

Espionage as “Self-Defense” Within Israel

Under the pretext of defending its citizens, Israel employs surveillance devices to collect information on residents of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as they pass through checkpoints. Israel also utilizes a facial recognition system called the “Red Wolf.” It is a biometric surveillance system that photographs Palestinians passing through checkpoints (sometimes involuntarily) and scans copies of their IDs to create a database on Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Two years earlier, Israel had begun using the Blue Wolf app for similar espionage purposes before developing a more recent application.

According to a report by Amnesty International, “Before 2021, facial recognition technology was only used at checkpoints, but since 2021, it is now accessible to every soldier on their mobile phone. The soldier scans [our] faces with the camera on their phones, and suddenly their behavior towards [us] changes because they see all the information.”

The soldier then uploads the photo to the application, which flashes three colors for each symbolic code: yellow indicates that the Palestinian should be detained, red implies immediate arrest, and green signifies that the Palestinian can pass, as reported by The Washington Post. It’s mentioned that soldiers were engaged in a competition to gather the highest number of pictures for prizes, such as a night off, with approximately 1,500 images collected weekly.

Israel utilizes a closed-circuit camera network, dubbed the “Hebron Smart City,” enabling real-time monitoring of the movements of the entire city’s population. A former Israeli soldier revealed that these surveillance cameras can sometimes capture pictures from inside the Palestinian homes. Additionally, there are several surveillance cameras situated around military checkpoints, sometimes amounting to 24 cameras at one checkpoint, as is the case at Checkpoint 56 in Hebron’s Area H2. These cameras can capture images of all vehicles in the West Bank, allowing soldiers to identify the car’s owner without needing the license plate number.

Finally, Israel also deliberately employs surveillance cameras installed by settlers on their homes and businesses, as highlighted by Waed Abbas from Amnesty International in Palestine, in an interview with Daraj.

This surveillance system is prohibited in European countries and many American states due to matching errors and privacy violations. Israel, however, justifies its use under the pretext of “self-defense.” In 2016, Israel launched the White Wolf app, available to citizens, enabling them to collect photos and information about Palestinians.

Microsoft’s Involvement in Surveillance

In 2019, Microsoft’s investment arm, M12, invested $78 million in the newly established Israeli company AnyVision. As part of that deal, AnyVision committed to adopting Microsoft’s six principles to guide facial recognition work.

The Israeli company collaborated with the government to develop technology used at border checkpoints separating the West Bank areas. AnyVision developed a surveillance technology dubbed Better Tomorrow, allowing users to recognize faces through their phones or surveillance cameras and monitor the movements of targeted individuals.

The American firm Covington & Burling released a criminal report on AnyVision, indicating that the surveillance system developed by the Israeli company does not have “extensive monitoring capabilities.” However, reports from Israeli and international media outlets, including NBC News and The Marker, suggest the use of the Better Tomorrow technology for monitoring Palestinians in the West Bank. The company also won the Israeli Defense Prize in 2018 for “thwarting hundreds of terror attacks,” according to the Ministry of Defense. This sparked public backlash against Microsoft, which withdrew its investments from AnyVision.

Additionally, the company itself has transformed into Oosto for security. In the past six months, Oosto reportedly experienced a 15% reduction in its workforce, according to LinkedIn.

Eyes for the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank

Both the occupation forces and the Palestinian Authority share the surveillance of West Bank residents. Palestinian journalist and activist Faten Alwan told Daraj how her social media accounts were breached:” My Facebook and Instagram accounts were hacked, and several posts documenting the assaults by the Palestinian Authority and its security personnel were deleted. I accuse the Palestinian Authority and its security forces because the hacking was part of a campaign led by the Authority against Palestinian journalists to silence the Palestinian voice.”

Two years ago, Meta announced the suspension of operations of two distinct hacking groups in Palestine. Meta identified one group as Arid Viper, while the other was associated with the Palestine Preventive Security (PPS), an intelligence agency established after the Oslo Accords in 1996 operating under the Palestinian Authority. The PPS conducts covert espionage operations to protect national security and happens to be the same agency that arrested activist Nizar Banat in 2021, who died during interrogation. The PPS coordinates with Israel and was previously trained by a special U.S. intelligence unit in Jordan.

Exclusive Espionage without Intermediaries

In the aftermath of the Pegasus revelations, Israeli companies face difficulties in attracting clients as they have been blacklisted by the United States. Their challenges are further compounded by their notoriety for violating agreements with various European governments, which prohibit Israeli surveillance companies from employing such technologies on their citizens.

While journalists and human rights advocates in European countries have governments condemning the hacking of their phones and the use of Israeli spyware against them, Palestinians remain the most vulnerable and impacted victims of Israel’s spyware technologies.

Nourhan Sharaf Eddine
Lebanese Journalist
Published on 27.11.2023
Reading time: 7 minutes

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