In 2016, award-winning Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor – who is now serving a 10-year prison sentence in the United Arab Emirates for such unspeakable crimes as insulting the “status and prestige of the UAE and its symbols,” including its leaders – was the victim of a hacking attempt by NSO Group, an Israel-based cyber warfare firm.
According to the University of Toronto-based Citizen Lab, which analysed the attack, the goal of the operation was to convert Mansoor’s iPhone into a “digital spy in his pocket” – taking control of the camera and microphone and recording the activist’s communications and movements.
This, mind you, was four years before the normalisation of UAE-Israeli relations last month – the culmination of a longstanding, secret love affair between the Middle Eastern federation of sheikhdoms and the Zionist state known for habitually massacring Palestinians and otherwise tormenting the Emiratis’ fellow Arabs.
‘Every person is monitored’
The targeting of Mansoor is hardly the only instance of pre-normalisation surveillance collaboration. There’s also Falcon Eye, a mass civil surveillance system installed in Abu Dhabi by an Israeli-owned company.
A Middle East Eye article from 2015 quoted a source on the system’s utter creepiness: “Every person is monitored from the moment they leave their doorstep to the moment they return to it. Their work, social and behavioural patterns are recorded, analysed and archived.”
Indeed, the UAE is believed to possess one of the highest per capita concentrations of surveillance cameras on the planet.
Then there’s DarkMatter, the Emirati cyber-intelligence and hacking firm that has been described as “Big Brother on steroids”. Last year, the New York Times reported that the Abu Dhabi-based outfit employed not only former US National Security Agency personnel, but also former Israeli military intelligence operatives.
Under FBI investigation “for possible cyber crimes”, DarkMatter was, the Times noted, likely linked to the Emirati messaging app ToTok, itself “actually a spying tool … used by the government of the United Arab Emirates to try to track every conversation, movement, relationship, appointment, sound and image of those who install it on their phones”.
Meanwhile, Erik Prince – the notorious founder of Blackwater and architect of a secret mercenary army utilised by UAE monarchies for domestic oppression and other purposes – also appears to have served as a facilitator of Emirati-Israeli intersections in the realm of surveillance.
The Intercept recalls Prince’s claim to have sold a programme – based on cellphone geolocation software licensed from an Israeli company – to the air forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE “to locate bombing targets in Yemen” (ie, to perpetuate the Saudi- and Emirati-led slaughter in that country). Prince additionally endeavoured to entice the UAE government with his vision of an “agricultural crop duster modified with surveillance and laser-guided munitions”.
Steroid-infused Big Brother
But why do the Emirates’ rulers require such manic surveillance schemes in the first place? Simply put, when you’re in the business of depriving the people in your country of basic rights, a steroid-infused Big Brother mechanism is essential to ensure that you don’t end up with a bunch of Ahmed Mansoors running around threatening to expose the arrangement for what it is: a neoliberal wet dream in which freedoms of speech, expression and association are replaced with artificial islands, malls with ski slopes, the annual month-long Dubai Shopping Festival, and other tributes to obscene consumption.
Thought police also come in handy when your country is built on the backs of a vast and brutalised migrant workforce – not to mention when your country is bombing and torturing folks in another Arab nation.
Torture is, of course, also an option for domestic critics of the government – as are imprisonment and disappearance. The slightest bit of online dissent is grounds for detention.
As for the helping hands from Israel that are implicated in the Emirati panorama of repression, the partnership is less than shocking. According to a 2016 report by Privacy International, Israel boasted the most surveillance companies per capita of anywhere in the world.
While the international marketability of Israeli weaponry and lethal expertise has much to do with the fact that these products and knowledge have been battle-tested on real live Palestinians, the same can be said of the surveillance industry. In 2014, Israel’s exports of cyber-security products and surveillance technologies “topped $6bn”, the Financial Times noted, “exceeding Israeli exports of military hardware for the first time”.
In an essay for the Jerusalem Quarterly titled “Strategies of Surveillance: The Israeli Gaze”, Elia Zureik reviews the myriad ways in which Palestinians have been punitively surveilled since even before the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 – from the compilation of data on Palestinian villages to facilitate the process of conquest and dispossession, to draconian restrictions on Palestinian movement via identity cards and checkpoint regimes, to the erection of settlements as “panoptic fortresses” (architect Eyal Weizman’s conceptualisation).
Naturally, the internet has provided Israel with loads more opportunities for ludicrous anti-Palestinian surveillance, as when hundreds of Palestinians were detained for suspected future violence based on – I kid you not – a determination by social media algorithms.
Nor does intermittent complicity in Israeli efforts by Facebook and Twitter help matters of freedom and rights, digital or otherwise. Ditto for Microsoft’s funding of an Israeli facial recognition firm engaged in secret military surveillance of West Bank Palestinians.
In his essay, Zureik observes that “beyond the circulation of technologies and strategies of surveillance from one colonial space to another, those methods adopted to monitor marginal and minority groups perceived to threaten the state are eventually extended to the majority, and those developed in the colonies make their way back to the metropole”.
Cases in point: overzealous domestic wiretapping in Israel; a 2007 “Big Brother Law” allowing a ginormous database of phone numbers, maps of antenna locations, and other information; a national biometric database; and the use of military surveillance vehicles at social justice protests.
As luck would have it, coronavirus has now offered a pretext for an intensification of surveillance in the metropole and beyond.
At the start of the pandemic, for example, the Shin Bet – Israel’s internal security agency – was unleashed to enforce public health by using counter-terrorism measures and technology for the purpose of “hunting down” persons suspected of exposure to Covid-19. This despite inevitable inaccuracies, a lack of proper oversight, and even a warning from the Israel Association of Public Health Physicians.
Some Israeli officials, on the other hand, were apparently of the opinion that deploying the Shin Bet was not nearly extreme enough; ultra-right-wing former defence minister Naftali Bennett, for one, favoured teaming up with the aforementioned cyber warfare firm NSO Group – the would-be hackers of Ahmed Mansoor – to combat the virus.
A May Haaretz article, meanwhile, announced that the defence ministry was seeking to “expand … defence exports in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, including systems that track civilians”, and cited estimates from defence sources that surveillance exports would be in increased demand given the likelihood of popular protests in response to a global coronavirus-induced economic crisis.
The article went on to specify that bidding companies would be requested to supply information on the needs of “target countries” – defined as all countries in the world minus Iran, Syria and Lebanon – “for biometric measures, systems for tracking people and vehicles and face recognition systems as well as systems for recognising voices, images, license plates, cellular geolocation measures, intelligence cybersecurity systems and software for blocking or intercepting information online”.
Connecting the dots
Which brings us back to the UAE, a “target country” that is safely in the bag, and that – surprise surprise – had already commenced coronavirus-related collaboration with Israel before the Emirati-Israeli romance was officially publicised in August.
In July, for instance, the Associated Press reported that Group 42, a UAE-based artificial intelligence and cloud-computing firm participating in coronavirus vaccine trials, had hooked up with Israeli companies in the context of the fight against the pandemic. Coincidentally, Peng Xiao, the CEO of Group 42, “for years ran Pegasus, the DarkMatter ‘big data’ software” that was developed by NSO Group and used to target Mansoor.
As if the overlap of nefariousness weren’t already confounding enough, Pegasus reportedly came into existence via hefty financial contributions from veterans of Unit 8200, Israel’s super-sketchy military intelligence outfit. Anyway, you could easily argue that one of the many functions of surveillance is to thwart such a connecting of dots.
The AP dispatch suggests that the Emirati police state may exploit the current pandemic to eviscerate domestic civil liberties – not that they were there to begin with – while a Haaretz editorial warns that Israel is “heading for a Shin Bet police state”, an assessment that seems rather late to the game in spite of the authors’ acknowledgement that the “original sin was of course the occupation”.
But as Israel’s brand of militarised surveillance threatens to infect a pandemic-stricken globe, it’s worth watching how this particular two-(police)-state solution pans out.