NSO reflects the murky side of Israeli high-tech

Shay Aspril Photo: Shlomi Yosef
Shay Aspril Photo: Shlomi Yosef

Novelist and journalist Shay Aspril uncovered the potential abuses of the spyware company in 2012. Many Israeli tech companies develop controversial products, he says.

Nine years ago Shay Aspril, then an investigative journalist with the Israeli financial daily 'Calcalist,' was looking over documents related to a defense company that he was writing about, when his attention was suddenly caught by a loan agreement between the company and NSO Group, a name that aroused his curiosity.

"I remember that I thought we were talking about a rather unimaginative name but I already knew that sometimes the most banal and small things can conceal thrilling stories," Aspril told "Globes." "In another document, I saw that the loan had been repaid after a relatively short period with high interest. Something in the journalistic instinct I had back then drew me into looking into it and investigating."

"I took a draft copy from the registrar of companies and phoned some sources that had been in touch with me. When I mentioned the name NSO, I was greeted with silence or stuttering, which reminded me of the reactions I had received several years earlier, when I had begun to investigate the activities of companies like Final, which before it had been exposed was a stealthy algorithm trading company that had earned vast amounts for its founders, or Mati Kochavi's homeland security company Logic, which operated in the Persian Gulf."

Several weeks later Aspril set to work on an investigative article into NSO, poring over documents that had been leaked and sources who had agreed to cooperate. "I understood that this was about a very sophisticated surveillance product in technological terms, and as is the way with technology, its capabilities could be extreme - the ability to be extremely effective or extremely damaging, or more likely, to do both things at the same time.

Did you believe that this company would provide devices to governments that could be used for surveillance of journalists and human rights activists, as it turned out has happened?

"During the work on my investigation, it became apparent to me that Pegasus, the Trojan horse program that could install itself into any mobile phone, had disturbing technological powers. And taking into account the character of its customers, it was natural to assume that the product would fall into hands that would use it in an improper way. In the investigative article, I warned that if prudent measures were not taken regarding the identity of customers, then the product might be used to spy on activists and investigative journalists."

We are talking about 2012, at a time prior to serious discussions about privacy and Facebook and far from the level of criticism it receives today. How did the public receive your revelations? Did it have any impact?

"Generally speaking, in-depth economic, legal, scientific or technological issues regarding the public at large are usually left out of the discourse, or undergo a process of superficiality that empties them of all content. My investigation did have a good impact at the time in Israel but no more than that. It's related to the fact that the topic is relatively complicated and also because, it has no obvious hero or villain, and readers look for articles that they feel can affect their own lives."

Were you disappointed or surprised?

"I wasn't surprised because I already understood that in investigations of this kind there isn't usually a correlation between the journalistic achievement and the level of impact. It is human nature only to take action when there is a tangible threat and that's the reason that early warnings about dangers that are perceived as theoretical are usually ignored."

Aspril, 42, was trained as a lawyer, and has since left journalism and has published three books including the novel "The Judge," which is among other things an indictment of the murky side of Israeli high-tech. One of the memorable characters in the novel is an Israeli nicknamed "Keyser Soze" who was a mixture of mysterious tycoons who Aspril met during his enquiries. The character symbolized, perhaps, all the ills of Israel's tech industry, which launders pornography, gambling and forex under the alleged guise of high-tech.

"Israeli high-tech is marketed well and the media loves to showcase its beautiful side. Its front yard is indeed very inviting and attractive but there are also interesting things happening out back. As this world is perceived as relatively complex, and also for other reasons, the media in Israel rarely cuts into the heart of the matter," he said.

"You can read a double spread interview with the founder of a startup company that wants to find a buyer or hire employees. There will be details there about revenue, the number of employees and the social life at the company and perhaps two sentences on this or that solutions and technologies but even after you've read the thousands of words, you won't understand what the company does in order to earn its money."

Controversial products and major exploitation

According to Aspril, a big segment of the high-tech industry draws its existence from controversial products, whether it rests on taking blatant advantage of human weakness, or if their problematic nature stems from being sold to the wrong people. "In order to stimulate discussion, I thought there was a place to reveal a little of what is happening on the other side," he said.

When asked about his choice of tackling the issue through fiction, he explained. "It's important to understand that 'The Judge,' in addition to social criticism, mainly probes the psychological aspects of those involved and attempts to fairly and honestly confront the circumstances that lead people to places that society judges critically. In a certain sense, the ability of fictional literature to plumb the depths of the soul and fearlessly convey social criticism allows it, and not documentary literature and journalism to come close to the elusive concept called 'the truth.' That's also the reason that it has survived well the test of time.

Full disclosure: The author and Aspril worked together at "Calcalist."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 13, 2021

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2021

Shay Aspril Photo: Shlomi Yosef
Shay Aspril Photo: Shlomi Yosef
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