Technology made by an Israeli company was used to target groups of journalists in Mexico and other problematic areas, including slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Edward Snowden, the infamous “whistle-blower” who leaked classified NSA information, told a conference in Israel on Tuesday. Snowden spoke via video-conference from an undisclosed location in Russia to the closed audience.
Though he was not physically present due to concerns that he would be handed over to US authorities, Snowden was responded to by former Mossad deputy chief Ram Ben Barak and took questions from other members of the audience.
The event was organized by Israeli media consultancy firm OH! Orenstein Hoshen.
Snowden began by defending his security leaks and defended himself from fans who did not want him to have contact with Israel on a public level.
He said, “like most Americans, I am against the occupation [of Israel of the Palestinians.] I support those trying to end it. But I do not think progress can move without dialogue,” in explaining why he decided to speak publicly to an Israeli audience.
Snowden accused the Israeli NSO firm of “selling a digital burglary tool” and said that even if some good actors are using their software, “it is not just being used for catching criminals and stopping terrorist attacks…not just for saving lives, but for making money…such a level of recklessness…actually starts costing lives.”
It was NSO’s software, he said, that was used to track Khashoggi, who was killed in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul last month. The infamous leaker said he had succeeded in pushing the discussion of liberal democratic governments “collecting and abusing our data” saying “it is being talked about more…when you move from conspiracy theory to fact – the conversation changes.”
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Furthermore, he said that the approach of regular citizens’ telephone calls and emails could lead to intelligence agencies making the wrong decisions when there are complex calls to make.
Attacking the surveillance state as not bringing security, he said: “Surveillance is not about safety. Surveillance is about control.”
Also, he warned that private companies could at some point grab power over regular people’s lives that governments will not be able to restrain.
Questioned over whether his push for reining in surveillance has failed since democracies are making partial limitations, although still accepting the new surveillance state, he said, “that is too short-sighted. I think things are getting better…We are starting to see our human rights being enforced,” referring to private companies’ encryption at resisting government surveillance.
Asked how the NSA surveils Israelis versus Americans, Snowden said, “everything that is happening to Americans is happening to you – and worse.” He was also asked whether Israel surveils the world to a similar extent that the US does and said, “Israelis are some of our closest partners. Anything that we are doing that the Israelis aren’t doing now, they are probably trying to do…They are probably jealous of us…and it has to do with that we have more traffic.”
Moving into Israel’s cyber sector, he added, “Israel has a phenomenal tech sector. It is something to take pride in…But is it all really cybersecurity?”
SNOWDEN SAID that Israel is routinely at the top of the US’s classified threat list of hackers along with Russia and China, due to its abilities, even though it is an ally.
Asked if Israeli companies like NSO were unique or whether NSO’s activities were happening with the cyber sector around the world, Snowden responded, “In the Israeli model, there is closer cooperation between the government and the state.”
Pressed that Israelis need and prefer security over certain limitations of government, Snowden referred to Nazi Germany as the origin of this way of thinking, adding that other countries, such as the US were also going down this path.
Addressing Facebook’s collection of data, he said, “Facebook does not care about you, your country, your politics, what happens to you, - Facebook cares about one thing: your data. They are surveillance people. Their product is you – the story of your life and the lives of your neighbors.”
Hedad Orenstein and Itamar Hoshen said, “Our firm is engaged in advising clients…in the realm of economics, law, technology and high-tech – and these are exactly the fields in which Snowden is involved.”
They said that Snowden was “a fascinating figure because his actions are so controversial” and that the audience could “work out their own opinions.”
Snowden was working for a private contractor of the CIA and NSA when he made international headlines by publishing masses of classified information in the biggest and most sensitive leak in the history of intelligence.
The leak unveiled for the first time the existence of post-9/11 powerful and invasive global surveillance programs, many run by the NSA, with the cooperation of European governments and telecommunication companies, including Google, Microsoft and Verizon. Some of the programs were discontinued, while others were continued but with higher levels of government regulation.
In February 2015, a classified document leaked by Snowden revealed information about the cooperative intelligence-gathering efforts of the US, UK and Israel against Iranian targets. Other previous documents revealed a number of details of the inner workings of the intelligence relationships between the US and Israel, along with other members of the “Five Eyes” – which include Australia, Canada, New Zealand and England.
Those leaks, made mostly in 2013, are related to the NSA eavesdropping on some top Israeli officials and possible Israeli cooperation with the NSA to eavesdrop on other mutual allies.
Another revelation indicated that the NSA may have greater authority to check communications with US citizens living in foreign countries, such as Israel, while yet another revealed that the US may sometimes cooperate with Unit 8200 to review metadata on behalf of the NSA that it cannot review under US law.
SNOWDEN REMAINS one of the world’s most wanted fugitives. He could face life in prison or even the death penalty if he is ever captured. He is both vilified as a traitor and revered as the whistle-blower who altered the playing field on the issue, putting the NSA on the defensive.
From a crowd of around 150 attendees, two-thirds informally voted by a show of hands that he is a freedom fighter and one-third said he was a traitor.
But former Mossad deputy chief Ram Ben Barak rejected Snowden’s message, saying that if Snowden had his way, and intelligence agencies were weakened, there would be more terror attacks which would kill people and harm Israel’s democracy.
The former Mossad deputy chief responded to Snowden, that people should not be confused and mistakenly think, “that he’s an American patriot, a defender of human rights…It is far from reality…I don’t know his real motives…But you can’t overcome a crime by doing a bigger crime.” He added that Snowden “did not succeed - not because he revealed things that were false” and asked if there is an alternative to using surveillance to combat terror.
The NSO firm responded on Wednesday, "Edward Snowden found a refuge and warm welcome in Russia from where he has chosen to deal with issues like the rights of citizens and democracy and to slander Israeli technology companies without having any knowledgeable basis [about them] or familiarity with their operations."
"The NSO firm produces products which are sold to governmental officials for the sole purpose of investigating and preventing crime and terror," said the statement.
It continued, "Not only does the company act in accordance with export-security related laws, but it is also the only company of its kind in the world in that it utilizes an independent ethics board which includes external experts with legal and international relations backgrounds. The purpose is to prevent a situation where its products are wrongfully exploited. Therefore, in contrast to what was published in the media, the company does not sell to them [wrongful actors] and does not permit the use [of its products] in many countries."
"The products of the NSO firm assist on a daily basis with saving the lives of thousands of people: from terrorists and drug barons, children from kidnapping, from pedophiles and from other criminals," concluded the NSO statement.
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