Israel is, in many ways, an anomaly among nations. While it considers itself a democracy, it is actually a national-security state. Its military-intelligence apparatus is ubiquitous in the everyday affairs of its citizens. These sacrifices of privacy and civil liberties are prices most Israelis are willing, even happy, to pay in return for security.
The Israeli army’s signals intelligence (SIGINT) branch, Unit 8200, is the largest unit in the IDF and one of its most prestigious. It is integrated into the overall intelligence apparatus, foreign and domestic, and is used to penetrate the affairs of Palestinians in granular detail, permitting the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, to cultivate informants and plan covert operations like targeted killings or arrests of security suspects. The cyber-surveillance technologies developed by Unit 8200 and the other intelligence agencies are a key component in maintaining Israeli control over the Palestinian people.
But in the past two decades or so, Israel has greatly expanded use of these technologies. Veterans of these spy shops have transferred their knowledge into the commercial sphere and marketed themselves as agents of repression for clients around the globe. This is a dark, dirty secret that lies behind the hype of the “start-up nation.”
Two Israeli companies are at the forefront of this commercialization of dirty ops: NSO Group and Black Cube. Those following the Harvey Weinstein scandal will remember that Black Cube was the cyber-surveillance firm that Weinstein’s lawyer, David Boies, hired after former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak introduced Weinstein to the company. Black Cube employed covert schemes to trick Weinstein’s accusers into exposing themselves so that his legal defense might have more ammunition to discredit them in court and in the public realm.
When The New Yorker revealed Black Cube’s seamy activities, the involved parties scrambled into damage-control mode. Black Cube at first refused to confirm or deny working for the disgraced Weinstein (later, it apologized). Boies admitted signing a contract with the company, but insisted he had no role in determining the activities it would carry out for Weinstein. That allowed Weinstein’s victims to be exploited twice over—first by his sexually predatory behavior, and then by Black Cube, which sent agents posing as sympathetic individuals offering aid, comfort, and financial support, but who were actually preying on the victims and serving Weinstein’s interests.