Google is aiding and abetting Israel's invasive surveillance state

Google is aiding and abetting Israel's invasive surveillance state
Already a highly advanced and sophisticated system of digital control against Palestinians, Israel's surveillance capabilities are becoming far more dangerous thanks to Project NIMBUS and the help of global tech giants, writes Richard Silverstein.
7 min read
11 Aug, 2022
An Israeli technician installs a surveillance camera on a street in occupied East Jerusalem on January 24, 2019. Israel has an advanced system of surveillance used to monitor Palestinians. [Getty]

Israel is known for maintaining one the most intrusive regimes of surveillance and control in the world. Its victims are a restive Palestinian population under military occupation. This system has become the sine qua non of the surveillance state.

As such, the country’s technology sector is largely geared to producing products that advance its goals and needs. This enables its military intelligence apparatus to monitor public movement, social media content, communications, CCTV, and more.

It is a comprehensive system of digital control. In fact, it is so effective that other countries facing ethnic conflict or internal dissent have turned to Israel to purchase the technology. I call the phenomenon the selling of the Israeli surveillance state.

An example is NGO Group, whose Pegasus spyware has been sold to intelligence agencies in 50 countries. Among its clients are repressive regimes like Azerbaijan, Bahrain, and UAE, as well as countries like Mexico and Jordan, whose intelligence services use the malware to monitor the activity of human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, political dissidents, and rivals. In a number of instances, including that of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, journalists have been murdered with the aid of such spyware.

"Israel is known for maintaining one the most intrusive regimes of surveillance and control in the world. Its victims are a restive Palestinian population under military occupation"

In the US, despite promising that it would refuse to permit Pegasus’ use in the US and against its own citizens, NSO Group exploited a WhatsApp vulnerability and intercepted the communications of 1,400 victims. Parent company, Facebook, is suing the Israeli firm in federal court.

Pegasus spied on senior Palestinian foreign ministry officials as they travelled from Palestine to collaborate with the International Criminal Court regarding Israeli war crimes. Pegasus has even been used against Israeli citizens when NSO Group sold spyware to Israeli police, who used it to monitor the communication of anti-Netanyahu activists, mayors, and former government officials.

There has been significant pushback by the global digital rights community against such abuses. Notably, Forbidden Stories produced the single-most comprehensive account of NGO Group’s malign impact. Its report sparked global outrage and led to the Biden administration blacklisting the firm from doing business in the US.

This in turn dealt a body-blow to its international business and cut it off from a major potential market. Since then, NSO Group has suffered financial hits to its bottom line and its long-term outlook is clouded.

Israel's newest surveillance partner

The Intercept recently reported that there is another far more powerful and pervasive artificial intelligence (AI) tool Israel has purchased: Google and Amazon’s Project NIMBUS suite of data analysis products, offering a sweeping, integrated system that will permit deeper penetration of the private and public lives of Palestinians.

While the Israeli military and security services already rely on a sophisticated system of computerised surveillance, the sophistication of Google’s data analysis offerings could worsen the increasingly data-driven military occupation.

Google's AI 'Code of Ethics'

Google’s marketing presents itself as an ethical corporate citizen. Indeed, it developed an AI Code of Ethics, which states that, “AI should be socially beneficial” and “we believe that the overall likely benefits substantially exceed the foreseeable risks and downsides”

Categories guaranteed according to the Code include: “avoiding unfair bias,” “testing for safety;” “accountability to people;” and “privacy principles.”


The list of no-no's is also instructive. They include avoiding technologies which will “cause overall harm,” “whose principal purpose is to cause injury to people;” “that gather information for surveillance;” “whose purpose contravenes widely accepted norms of international law and human rights.”

In fact, NIMBUS as Israeli security services plan to use it violates almost every provision of Google’s ethics code. The code is, of course, window dressing permitting Google to highlight its white knight reputation. But when push comes to dollars, the ethics fly out the window as the cash comes pouring in.

But even if Google did develop pangs of conscience regarding the sale of NIMBUS, the contract insulated Israel from such vagaries. The cloud servers will reside in Israel, not in a Google server facility. This guarantees no interference by the company should it determine that a particular Israeli use of the technology contradicts corporate policy. Google is also contractually prohibited from disabling or discontinuing service in Israel. And it cannot, according to the contract, accede to boycott threats.

Though the technology giant projects an image of offering the highest, most reliable and advanced technology products, its sales staff has made dubious claims about NIMBUS’s capabilities. A Google engineer once told an audience during a product demonstration that it could tell whether someone was lying “by the sound of their voice.”

"The [ethics] code is, of course, window dressing permitting Google to highlight its white knight reputation. But when push comes to dollars, the ethics fly out the window as the cash comes pouring in"

Claiming NIMBUS is capable of “sentiment analysis” has left data scientists, including some within the company itself, aghast. Declaring that AI can detect or predict behaviour based on emotions, facial expressions, or written statements is junk science and “little more than phrenology.”

Israel’s Shin Bet domestic spy agency has previously boasted that it maintains a vast database of social media content, which employed AI to predict who might engage in future terror attacks. This is akin to magical thinking, establishing arbitrary criteria that is then imposed on real people, believing this offers you magical access to inner thoughts.

In one embarrassing incident, a Palestinian construction worker posted a Facebook picture of himself in front of his bulldozer with the Arabic caption, “good morning.” The social media company’s machine-learning program mistranslated the phrase as “Hurt them.” As a result, the man was arrested, suspected of planning a terror attack against Israeli Jews. He was later released, but not before both Facebook and the spy agency had been proven a laughingstock.

Google competitor, Microsoft, cancelled a contract to provide facial recognition software, which would have enabled the creation of a vast database of Palestinians crossing borders, to the Israeli Occupation Forces after human rights activists and its own employees complained.

A deal with the devil

The involvement of US global technology powerhouses like Google, with its vast store of products, services and technical capabilities, raises the threat of the Israeli surveillance state exponentially, and further implicates the US and some of our most powerful companies in the brutal occupation and apartheid against Palestinians. 

It is far easier to focus attention on discrete Israeli companies like NSO Group and others marketing dubious products than it is on corporations with a global footprint and brand, rendering them impervious to criticisms and above the law.

When we think of Google, we think of its omnipresent Chrome browser and search engine. Its main profit engine is advertising, which seems benign enough. It’s also known for its other Alphabet forays into self-driving vehicles (Waymo), broadband (Google Fiber), “curing death” (Calico), and solar-powered drones, among others.

Until now, few people have been aware of its forays into far more dangerous products, capable of far greater invasiveness and damage than anything NSO Group offers. Given Google’s ubiquitous presence in the marketplace, it will be far more difficult to restrain it as it enters into dangerous waters. 

The company is partnering with a repressive Israeli regime, enabling it to assert ever-greater dominance over a captive population. It is a deal with the devil. As such, Google is serving a similar role to IBM, IG Farben, BMW, Siemens and others, which aided and abetted the crimes of the Nazi regime.

It is critical for the global digital rights community to scrutinise and expose such excesses, and to hold Google and its corporate leadership accountable. Shame and blame are highly useful in campaigns to bring corporations to heel as they have the power to hit them where it hurts: profit.

Richard Silverstein writes the Tikun Olam blog and is a freelance journalist specialising in exposing secrets of the Israeli national security state. He campaigns against opacity and the negative impact of Israeli military censorship.

Follow him on Twitter: @richards1052

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.