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Big Brother Is Watching

Israel is stepping up its digital and electronic surveillance against Palestinians.

George Orwell (Photo Credit: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

Jerusalem24 – Mohammad Hamayel – “Big brother is watching you,” those famous words written by George Orwell in his novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, described a totalitarian society where the antagonizing “party” is constantly monitoring the citizens lives through what was considered science-fiction technology in 1949.

However, recent events have shown that reality can indeed be stranger than fiction.

An investigation by watchdog organization, Front Line Defenders showed that Pegasus, a spyware program developed by Israeli company NSO Group, was installed in the phones of Human Rights Defenders and employees of six Palestinian NGOs classified by Israeli Ministry of Defense as “terrorist organizations;” despite a lack of solid evidence. In an interview on Wake Up Palestine, Mohammed Al-Maskati, the investigator who found that the phones had been hacked said, “Pegasus is like giving your phone and passwords to someone else.” Adding that, “they can see what you see, they can write, watch, listen to you, see what the camera is seeing. They have access to all of your phone’s features.”

The investigation conducted by Front Line Defenders included a scan of the iPhone devices from the 6 human rights organizations and human rights defenders from these organizations. Inside the phones, they found traces of process names associated with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware on the iPhones.

Al-Maskati, said that he shared his findings with Citizen Lab and Amnesty International Security Lab, both confirmed Front Line Defenders’ findings.

An Israeli technician climbs up a pole to install a surveillance camera in occupied Ras al-Amud, East Jerusalem, on 24 January 2019 (AFP)

According to Human Rights Watch, “surveillance of Palestinian human rights defenders violates their right to privacy, undermines their freedom of expression and association, and threatens their personal security and lives.” and that it not only affects those targeted, but also has a chilling effect on advocates or journalists who may self-censor out of fear of potential surveillance.

“Everyone thinks that the only victim is the human rights defenders when his/her phone was infected,” says Maskati. He continues, “there are also indirect victims, the friends and family of the victim. It’s a breach of privacy not to that one person, but the entire environment of that one person.”

If monitoring phones was bad, the Washington Post reported that the Israeli military has been conducting a broad surveillance effort in the occupied West Bank to monitor Palestinians by integrating facial recognition with a growing network of cameras and smartphones, according to descriptions of the program by recent Israeli soldiers. As if in an episode of Black Mirror, soldiers competed last year in photographing Palestinians, including children and the elderly, with prizes for the most pictures collected by each unit. The photos were used to feed data to the surveillance system.

One of the intelligence officers who knew of the program said, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable if they used it in the mall in (my hometown).” She was motivated to speak against the system based on what she saw in Hebron as a “total violation of privacy of an entire people.”

A list of some of the controversies surrounding NSO Group’s Pegasus program

Ethical implications of the surveillance program, has caused it to be banned by several American cities, and the European Union’s parliament also called for a ban on police use of facial recognition in Public places. Scandals involving the violation of human rights have also caused the Israeli NSO Group to be black listed by the United States.

This shows that how technologies that are being discussed in Western democracies are already being used in places where people have fewer freedoms.

Due to the importance of digital security, Front Line Defenders is not stopping at the report that they have just published. Maskati says, “We are planning to do advocacy to control the sales of surveillance tools to governments and to have them placed under the scrutiny of the international community. This report is just the start.”



Mohammad Hamayel

Ramallah based journalist, Mohammad graduated from Al-Quds University with a B.A. in Media and Television. He has covered the 2015 Jerusalem Intifada as well as the Great March of Return for international media outlets. currently an editor/presenter at Jerusalem24. A UN alumni and a follower of global events and politics, especially American affairs.

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