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An IDF soldier from the C4I Corps types on a computer. (Photo: IDF Spokesperson's Unit)

LGBTQ Community and Dissidents Main Targets as Israel Exports High-Tech Spying Tools to Despots Worldwide

"It's a weapon—like selling a pistol. The thing is that in this industry people think about the technological challenges, not about the implications."

Jake Johnson

As Israel's right-wing government continues to face international condemnation over its domestic efforts to silence dissidents who dare to question the country's brutal, decades-long occupation of Palestinian territories, a major Haaretz investigation published Thursday found that the Israeli high-tech sector—with the authorization of the Netanyahu government—has become a leading exporter of surveillance tools that are being used by dictatorial regimes to "hunt" and imprison political opponents, LGBTQ people, and the civilian population overall.

Developed in the wealthy Tel Aviv suburb of Herzliya Pituah—the center of Israel's burgeoning "espionage industry"—the nation's spy technology has "become the spearhead of the global commerce in surveillance tools and communications interception," Haaretz found.

"Today, every self-respecting governmental agency that has no respect for the privacy of its citizens, is equipped with spy capabilities created in Herzliya Pituah," Haaretz continued, noting that Israeli surveillance technology has been deployed by Azerbaijan, Saudi Arabia, and over 100 other nations to track the phone calls and online activities of dissidents and LGBTQ people.

Speaking with the cover of a pseudonym out of fear of retaliation, one employee of the Israeli spy industry and veteran of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) told Haaretz that "[e]veryone in this field knows that we are manufacturing systems that invade people's lives and violate their most basic rights."

"It's a weapon—like selling a pistol," the person added. "The thing is that in this industry people think about the technological challenges, not about the implications."

In one particularly appalling case, authorities in Azerbaijan arrested and tortured 45 gay men and transgender women shortly after the country began using surveillance technology created by Verint Systems, an Israeli tech giant. A source who worked with Verint products in Azerbaijan told Haaretz that the firm's technology was being used to "check sexual inclinations via Facebook."

Similarly, in Indonesia, Verint products were used to create a database of LGBTQ rights activists and spy on religious minorities.

Repressive regimes have also used Israeli technology to track dissidents. As Haaretz notes, Pegasus spyware—developed by the Israeli firm NGO Group—was used by Saudi Arabia in an attempt to track prominent dissident Omar Abdulaziz, who is living in Canada under political asylum.

As Haaretz notes, exports of spy technology "are approved by the [Israeli] Defense Exports Control Agency (a unit in the Defense Ministry)," and subsequent abuses of the technology are justified on the grounds that it is impossible to know how purchasers of these products will put them to use.

But according to one anonymous source cited by Haaretz, Israeli firms "are continuing to sell offensive cyber capabilities to Mexico... even after it became known that they were being used against civilians."

"Another example of a decision to go on doing business with those who abuse the surveillance capabilities is Colombia," Haaretz notes. "In 2015, the British nonprofit Privacy International revealed that Verint... had supplied the Bogota police with systems to intercept phone conversations, and that the technology was used to surveil opponents of the regime. A source involved in Verint’s deals in Latin America maintains that despite this, the company is continuing to sell its products in Colombia."

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