Like arms sales, decisions on the exportation of sensitive digital technology are the responsibility of governments, which cannot turn a blind eye to its harmful effects, especially when it is used to persecute dissidents and critics all over the world.
Software developed by Israeli companies such as NSO Group’s Pegasus clearly implicates the Israeli state. Even if the Israeli authorities play only an indirect role, they cannot escape their responsibility. They provide NSO Group and other companies specialising in surveillance technology with the export licences they need in order to sell to foreign governments.
A link is moreover visible between the exports and Israel’s foreign policy. This technology’s leading clients include the United Arab Emirates and Morocco, both of which established formal diplomatic relations with Israel in 2020. Even if Saudi Arabia, another purchaser of Pegasus, has no official diplomatic relations with Israel, the New York Times reports that the Israeli government authorised NSO Group to do business with the Saudi authorities despite Jamal Khashoggi’s murder.
“Enabling governments to install spyware that is used in practice to monitor hundreds of journalists and their sources throughout the world poses a major democratic problem,” RSF secretary-general Christophe Deloire said. “Regardless of how effective it may be, it is inappropriate for Israel to continue promoting this flagship technology like any other business product. We call on Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to impose an immediate moratorium on surveillance technology exports until a protective regulatory framework has been established.”
A story in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz even talks of “NSO diplomacy,” suggesting that Pegasus has become Israel’s equivalent of France’s Rafale fighter aircraft – a flagship of its industry. The newspaper reported that visits by former Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu to Hungary, Rwanda, Mexico and Azerbaijan were followed in each case a few months later by the acquisition of NSO Group licences.
Before invoking Israeli governmental responsibility, RSF joined other NGOs in addressing an open letter to NSO Group in April accusing it of failing to keep many of the undertakings it has given to respect and implement the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.
Israel is ranked 86th out of 180 countries in RSF's 2021 World Press Freedom Index.