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Israel’s Cyberwar Campaign Against Its Own Citizens

Israel announced a few days ago that it was going to unleash the equivalent of the NSA on its own citizens.  Though the boundary has become quite porous lately, you’ll recall that the NSA is generally supposed to use cyber tools to surveil and foil the operations of foreign enemies of the U.S.  In practice, the agency has taken huge liberties with that proposition.

But in Israel, which has no constitution nor any clear-cut guidelines regarding civil liberties and privacy, the national police have decided that they need a domestic version of America’s NSA.  They need the capability to use the same tools developed by Unit 8200 (the IDF’s SIGINT group) on Israeli citizens.  Of course, they claim they’re using these tools against organized crime gangs inside Israel.  But really, who believes they won’t be used against any citizen the police believe are enemies or threats to the state?  Why not use them to bug the phones of Israeli activists?  Track their activity on the internet?  See who they collaborate with both inside and outside Israel?

yoav hassan

Newly appointed Israeli police SIGINT chief, Yoav Hassan with police chief, Yochanan Danino

Doron Ofek, the Israeli cyber-security blogger, first wrote about this case.  Besides his outrage at the issue I noted above and his view that it threatened the democratic values of the state, he also discovered that the interior minister, Aharon Aharonovich, had posted a Facebook status announcing the new police SIGINT unit along with the photo of the newly appointed commander.  But the next day, when he viewed the same status, the appointees picture was gone.  Then shortly thereafter, the entire status disappeared.

Just like me, when something like this happens Ofek found that it really got interesting.  Through a Google search he discovered that the ministry had issued a press release about the appointment with the same picture.  But the original version of the story published at Walla included the picture and name of the appointee, while the current version available online has no picture and only refers to the new domestic cyber-spy cazar as “Brig. Gen. Y.”

Ofek has already revealed in his Hebrew language blog that the spy skulking in and out of the Israeli media is Yoav Hassan.  He is a former high-ranking officer in Unit 8200.  He’s left the IDF in order to take on this new assignment.  I’m also featuring the censored picture because…well just because I don’t believe in a kingdom of secrets masquerading as a democratic state.  There is absolutely no reason the Israeli public shouldn’t know its police are treating citizens as enemies of the state and spying on them using the most advanced cyber tools available; and that they shouldn’t know who’s doing the spying.

What Ofek and I do is to operate in the interstices of the national security state.  There are disputes and disagreements among the enforcers of this system.  There may even be incompetence.  Someone spills the beans, someone higher up realizes the mistake and tries to close the curtains after they’ve been opened.  Luckily, they can’t do it completely since they don’t (yet) have control of Google.  That’s where we come in.

{ 3 comments… add one }
  • Shoshana March 18, 2014, 1:06 AM


    Have you said, or done anything to stop the NSA from abridging the civil liberties of your fellow Americans?
    As an American, shouldn’t you be fighting tyranny at home, instead of abroad? Isn’t that your duty as a citizen?

    • Richard Silverstein March 18, 2014, 6:28 PM

      @ Shoshana: Unlike Gerald Ford, I can walk and chew gum at the same time. So I can advocate for Israeli and American democracy at the same time. Miraculously, I can even do it in the same blog! So thanks for your profound concern for American civil liberties, but I feel totally comfortable consistently advocating for civil liberties and constitutional rights (oh, that’s right, Israel has no constitution!) in both places.

      Before you make assumptions about what subjects I’ve ignored you might want to do a simple Google search to determine whether your assumption is accurate. In this case, it isn’t.

  • pabelmont March 18, 2014, 8:07 AM

    RS: How long before the fear of gov’y scrutiny dries up your contacts inside Israel? Big Brother is springing up everywhere and a lotta folksl start tending to their own gardens soon, waiting to see if they die of old age (and not of gov’t attention) before Climate Change does it for them.

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