Mossad espionage operations around the world. The intrepid “startup nation” is home to a plethora of multibillion-dollar ideas. These are two aspects of Israel’s international image that its political and business leaders have long pushed.
New reports claim that Israeli-founded technology, such as the Pegasus software from the firm NSO, has once again been used by governments around the world to allegedly hack the cellphones of human rights activists, journalists, and others.
NSO and its supporters claim that their software is only intended to catch terrorists and other criminals, that it saves lives on a regular basis, and that it is subject to strict export controls.
The company claims it has no control over what its clients do with the software, but it does follow Israeli laws regarding the export of military-grade technology, vets its customers carefully, and suspends access if misuse is discovered.
However, recent revelations about Pegasus by an international consortium of media and human rights organizations have refocused attention on both the company and Israel. Now, as many question the morality and legality of such programs, there are calls for better regulation of the cyber-espionage market from both within Israel and the international community.
Israel’s dominance in the field of cybersecurity did not happen by accident. The country’s intelligence and covert operations divisions, particularly the Mossad security force, have a long history of cunning, daring, and ruthless espionage, which has been bolstered by Hollywood portrayals.
The two areas converged as Israel’s prominence as a hub of technological innovation and startups grew, giving the tiny country an outsized influence in the cybersecurity industry.
According to Tal Pavel, Head of Cybersecurity Studies at The Academic College of Tel-Aviv Yaffo, the country’s well-resourced education system, combined with 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 Pavel, much of the country’s most cutting-edge technology has its roots in military development.
The secretive Unit 8200, the cyber spy agency that has produced some of the country’s biggest tech super stars, is one of the most elite units of the Israel Defense Forces.
“One of the unique things in Israel, is the ‘cynergy,’ the bringing together of cyber and synergy between industries,” Pavel told CNN, before alluding to a characteristic he says is perhaps rooted in the Israeli psyche.
“There is also something here … maybe there is also the struggle to survive. If everything is happy and you’re not constantly trying to survive (against people trying to destroy you), you don’t have to innovate, to cope.”