Audacious Mossad spy operations around the world. The plucky “startup nation” home to reams of billion-dollar ideas. These are two drivers of Israel’s image abroad that its political and business leaders have long been happy to push.
That slick image appears to have taken a hit with new reports that once again Israeli-founded technology, like the Pegasus software from the firm NSO, has been used by governments around the world to allegedly hack the cellphones of human rights activists, journalists and others. NSO and its defenders say its software is meant only to catch terrorists and other criminals, saying it regularly saves lives and operates under strict export controls.
The company says it doesn’t control what its clients do with the software, but follows Israeli laws on exporting military-grade technology, is selective in vetting its customers and cuts off access if it discovers misuse. But the recent revelations by an international consortium of media and human rights groups about Pegasus, have thrown the spotlight back on both the company and Israel. Now, as many consider the morality and legality of such programs, there are calls from both inside Israel as well as in the international community about how better to regulate the cyber-espionage market.
Israel’s dominance in the cybersecurity field did not occur in a vacuum. The country’s intelligence and covert operations divisions, especially its Mossad security force, have long had a storied reputation for engaging in cunning, daring and ruthless espionage, burnished by Hollywood depictions. As Israel’s prominence as a hub of technological innovation and startup grew, the two areas converged to give the tiny country an outsized influence in the cybersecurity industry. The country’s well-resourced education system, plus the compulsory military service, brings scores of young Israelis into high-level training in cybersecurity and cyberwarfare before many of them even go to university, according to Tal Pavel, Head of Cybersecurity studies at The Academic College of Tel-Aviv Yaffo. Much of the country’s most cutting-edge technology has its roots in military development, Pavel noted.