Controversial Spyware Vendor NSO Group Is Helping The Israeli Government Spy On Its Own Citizens

from the for-their-health,-of-course dept

Israel's leading malware purveyor is pitching in to help with the pandemic. NSO Group -- which has pitched its spy tools to a number of questionable governments -- is trying to help track the spread of the virus with its proprietary surveillance tool.

This would be the third effort by the country to keep tabs on the disease, starting with the Israeli government's authorization of the use of phone/location data to monitor infected individuals. There's also a more voluntary effort, created by the country's Ministry of Health, that allows users to "check in" by providing data about where they've been and whether or not they've tested positive for the disease.

But it's NSO's spyware that's the most worrying. Motherboard was able to observe the software in action and Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai reports it's a pretty scary piece of spycraft.

The spyware company has adapted the user interface and analytical tool that they already had developed to be used alongside its powerful malware known as Pegasus, which can hack into mobile phones and extract data like photos, messages, and phone calls, from them. NSO is not collecting location data from phones. It only provides the software to governments, which then get the location data from telecom companies and ingest it within the software, according to the source.

At least NSO isn't injecting itself into users' phones, but that's about the only positive thing that can be said about it. The software -- code named Fleming -- takes this data and creates heat maps showing people's movements: where they go, how long they stay, and who they come in contact with. Sure, the data is anonymized, but that's a dodge. Anonymized data can be de-anonymized with very little effort. But with NSO's offering, de-anonymization is just another bullet point on the feature list.

With the goal of protecting people’s privacy, the tool tracks citizens by assigning them random IDs, which the government—when needed—can de-anonymize, the source explained.

With NSO on board, the Israeli government is looking towards a more China-esque management of the country's citizens. China has "citizen scores." Israelis will now be tagged with health scores.

On Monday, Israel's Defense Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted that the Israeli government is working on "world-leading" AI system that will give every citizen a grade between 1 and 10 to determine how likely they are to spread the coronavirus and if they need to be tested, but that it hasn’t gotten all the necessary approvals yet. On Tuesday, Israeli news outlet Calcalist reported that Bennet was referring to NSO’s solution.

If every citizen is getting a score, it would appear the government isn't going to have much use for anonymized data. Seemingly unable to see the downsides of inflicting mass domestic surveillance on Israel's residents, Bennett is fully embracing the involuntary sacrifice of citizens' privacy in exchange for unproven pandemic-fighting gains. The Defense Minister has made it clear he thinks other governments should follow Israel's dubious lead.

Of course, once this pervasive tracking is in place, it will stay there long after the virus is under control. There's no set expiration date for this worldwide health crisis. Once it does retreat into the background, the usual national security and law enforcement concerns will replace it and the access government agencies have taken for granted for months or years won't be relinquished without a fight. And there's a good chance the officials that decided it was necessary to place the country's citizens under surveillance won't see the need to roll things back to their pre-coronavirus level.

Filed Under: covid-19, disease tracking, israel, privacy, spyware, surveillance, tracking
Companies: nso group


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • icon
    Norahc (profile), 3 Apr 2020 @ 10:05am

    Once again, Orwell's 1984 was a warning, not a how to manual for any government.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Apr 2020 @ 10:20am

    Just the tip of the iceberg

    Once people have servers in their pockets and always-on internet connections with space-based swarms, privacy will cease to exist altogether. Luckily it will only be a few more decades before everyone has the ability to see what someone was doing years ago in their professional lives. Never again will we suffer from police who beat people for fun and are protected by justice that is only blind for their offenses. All of our leader's professional lives will be retrievable so there can't be any secret meetings where our rights and freedoms are bartered away.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 3 Apr 2020 @ 1:08pm

    Sars-Mers-coronavirus stuff is known to have hit that region pretty hard.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Lawrence D’Oliveiro, 3 Apr 2020 @ 9:51pm

    There’s Citizens And There’s Citizens

    Remember that Israel is officially an apartheid state. 20% of its citizens are Arabs, but they are heavily discriminated against, and its own Prime Minister hates and fears them. Even among its Jewish citizens, there are different classes, with black Jews from Ethiopia subject to random beatings and harrassment.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 3 Apr 2020 @ 11:21pm

      Re: There’s Citizens And There’s Citizens

      I don't believe that's actually true on the ground in Israel. However, some people know more about the internal politics of it better than I can.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Close

Add A Reply

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here



Subscribe to the Techdirt Daily newsletter




Comment Options:

  • Use markdown. Use plain text.
  • Remember name/email/url (set a cookie)

Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

This site, like most other sites on the web, uses cookies. For more information, see our privacy policy. Got it
Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.