Israel eases cyber weapon export control

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Israel is easing export rules on offensive cyber weapons, despite accusations by human rights and privacy groups its technologies are used to spy on political foes and crush dissent.

A rule change by the defence ministry means companies can obtain exemptions on marketing licenses for the sale of certain products to specific countries, a source close to the cyber sector told Reuters.

Israel, like other defence exporters, guards details of weapons sales and its export rules are not widely known. The defence ministry confirmed the change came into force about a year ago in response to Reuters’ questions.

Industry specialists say the change makes a speedier approval process possible for the sale of cyber weapons, or spyware, used to break into electronic devices and monitor online communications.

Israel’s defence ministry said the rule change “was made to facilitate effective service to Israeli industries while maintaining and protecting international standards of export control and supervision”.

It said a marketing-license exemption was granted under “conditions related to the security clearance of the product and assessment of the country where the product will be marketed”. Companies are still required to hold an export license.

In a sign government could make more changes, the economy ministry –responsible for promoting economic growth and exports – is setting up a division to handle exports of cyber technologies with offensive and defensive capabilities.

“This is part of a reform essentially allocating more resources to the economy ministry for this important issue,” a ministry spokeswoman said.

GROWING COMMERCIAL MARKET

Advanced cyber weapons were until recently deployed only by technically sophisticated government spy agencies, such as those in the United States, Israel, China and Russia.

Now a robust commercial market for powerful hacking tools and services has emerged, with former government cyber experts from the United States, Israel and other countries playing a major role.
That brought new scrutiny to how cyber weapons are bought, sold and deployed and the actions of governments in regulating trade. Israeli companies, including NSO Group and Verint and defence contractor Elbit Systems, are among world leaders in the global market for cyber weapons. The software tools exploit vulnerabilities in cellphones and other tech products to gain access and covertly monitor users.

Some privacy and human rights groups say Israel’s controls on the sale of cyber weapons are inadequate. Earlier this year, Amnesty said government should take a tougher line against export license that have “resulted in human rights abuses”.

The Israeli government declined to comment on accusations of rights abuses.

Rights groups say neighbouring states including Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are among the Israeli firms’ spyware customers.

Diplomatic considerations can come into play and help speed sales. Tel Aviv University Professor Isaac Ben Israel, the father of Israel’s cyber sector and chairman of its space agency, said there was nothing wrong with using technology to form a bond with neighbours shunning formal ties.

“This is a legitimate tool in diplomacy,” he said.

Israeli companies say they comply with government export rules and vet customers to ensure technology is used for legitimate purposes.

REGULATE LESS, GROW MORE

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a June cyber conference there were demands to regulate the sector more as it grows. “I think we have to take the risk and it’s a considerable risk, of regulating less to grow more,” he said.

Israel’s approval process for exporting cyber weapons is more rigorous than in other countries including the United States and Britain, said Daniel Reisner, a partner at law firm Herzog Fox Neeman who represents Israeli cyber firms. That put Israel’s industry “at a huge disadvantage”, he said.

Under the rule change, the approval process can be up to four months quicker and this is “a huge help”, he added. Previously, it could take up to a year for to obtain approval, he said.

Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which focuses on digital espionage and has uncovered alleged spyware abuses in countries including the United Arab Emirates and Mexico, said it was “unfortunate” Israel was loosening its rules.

“Our research shows there is a crisis in civil society because of the abuse of commercial spyware,” Deibert told Reuters.

A June United Nations report called for a global moratorium on the sale of cyber weapons until human rights-compliant safeguards are in place in Israel and elsewhere.

Globally, a 42-nation weapons export agreement known as the Wassenaar Arrangement covers “intrusion software” and internet surveillance systems. Israel is not a party to the agreement, but says it is compliant.



David Kaye, United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, criticised Israel controls as “shrouded in secrecy” and called for all cyber weapon sales to be conditional to a human rights review. Citizen Lab linked NSO cellphone hacking software known as Pegasus to spying scandals in Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. NSO says its sales are approved by Israel’s government. Reisner, who serves as a member of an ethics committee at NSO, said the company voluntarily turned down $200 million worth of business between 2016 and 2018.