Focus on Israel

Disinformation: Another Israeli Repression Technology for Sale

An international network of investigative journalists, Forbidden Stories, is conducting a global investigation into ’disinformation mercenaries’. Israel, the leading exporter of services in smear campaigns, fake news and election rigging, reaps juicy profits, but may be held legally responsible for these crimes against democracy in the longer term.

In February, the investigative journalism organization Forbidden Stories published another chapter in their “Story Killers” project1, revealing a network of Israeli companies which provide disinformation services to the highest bidders. These services, which take cyber warfare to another level, include campaigns of character assassination, dissemination of fake news, and rigging elections and referendums.

Awareness of how social media, surveillance and data mining can sway elections has spread after the scandal of Cambridge Analytica became public in 2018. Cambridge Analytica influenced more than 200 elections around the world, and one of its key suppliers of technology was Archimedes Group, an Israeli company. When whistleblower Brittany Kaiser took the stand to expose these crimes, she claimed that she did not remember any names of Israeli employees of Archimedes Group with whom she had worked.

Cyber warfare in general and disinformation in particular are very dangerous weapons. They undermine the democratic process when utilized to influence elections by spreading rumors and false information, and they can also become lethal. The Indian journalist Gauri Lankesh was assassinated in September 2017, a few days before she was about to publish an article about disinformation and its dangers. Lankesh was herself a target of an orchestrated disinformation campaign, spreading smears against her. After she was murdered, the main figures who had incited against her turned out to be fake characters (avatars) who never existed in real life. The avatars were then deleted, covering the traces of those who orchestrated the campaign.

An “army” of avatars on social networks

Five years later, Forbidden Stories tried to understand how the disinformation industry works. A collaborative effort of journalists from different countries led them to the Israeli city/settlement of Modi’in, where they pretended to be customers interested in buying disinformation services to rig an election. They uncovered several companies, all of them Israeli, that were willing to launch a disinformation campaign on their behalf for as little as six million Euros.

Forbidden Stories, together with Amnesty International and Citizen Lab, exposed in July 2021 the way that Israeli companies sell spyware to hack phones and computers of journalists, human right activists, lawyers and politicians.2 The “Pegasus Project” revealed how technology which was tested on Palestinian civilians was used to enhance repression and grave human rights violations worldwide.3

The new revelations about the disinformation industry are a different facet of Israel’s mercenary espionage sector. Disinformation companies4are a “one stop shop” selling spyware; spy services; hacking emails, specifically Gmail and Hotmail, and messaging software, specifically Telegram; spreading fake news; and otherwise destroying the credibility of political candidates. They do this mostly through the use of fake avatars – profiles of artificial people who never existed. The companies steal pictures of real people but assign them different names, social media accounts and even electronic wallets with real money. The disinformation companies also hire operatives in target countries in order to be able to verify phone numbers and addresses as they build these fake avatars. “Team Jorge,” one of the Israeli disinformation companies, has an army of 40,000 such avatars, created with the help of artificial intelligence. Aside from “Team Jorge” and Archimedes Group, the list of Israeli disinformation companies named in the recent investigation include Voyager Labs, Percepto, Cognyte, Verint, S2T Cyberspace and Demoman.

’ Spyware diplomacy’

None of these technologies is unique to the Israeli intelligence forces. U.S., European and Chinese governments also have access to spyware and disinformation technology. Yet all of the companies which have been exposed are Israeli companies, staffed by graduates of intelligence units who practiced their skills on surveilling Palestinians, blackmailing them and using disinformation campaigns to sow divisions among them.

The monopoly of apartheid Israel over the mercenary disinformation sector is a result of the policy of the Israeli government. While every government in the world with access to disinformation tools guards these tools carefully, Israeli private companies offer this technology to customers around the world. The Story Killers investigation revealed that Israeli companies spread disinformation in Angola, Burkina Faso, Colombia, France, Indonesia, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Senegal, Singapore, Sri Lanka, Tunisia and more.

According to Israeli law, companies are forbidden from exporting Israeli military-security technology without approval by the Israeli Ministry of Defense, even if the companies are not registered in Israel. Despite this, Tal Hanan of “Team Jorge” told the undercover Forbidden Stories journalists that he can do as he pleases, unregulated by the Israeli authorities.5 He listed only three countries which he refuses to operate: Russia, the U.S. and Israel. This, of course, is a lie. The Israeli Ministry of Defense operates a special counterintelligence unit called the MALMAB to keep tabs of graduates of the Israeli security organizations. In Early March the MALMAB cracked down on the Israeli spyware company NFV for selling unauthorized spyware. Tal Hanan claims that he is in the business of disinformation from 1997, operating from Israel. Clearly, the Israeli Ministry of Defense has its reasons to allow him to operate. The claim that the disinformation industry is unregulated in Israel is intended to assuage the concerns of potential customers. But the Israeli government gives permission to former officers to export military technology as a means to win their loyalty, while also establishing unofficial ties with countries which do not have diplomatic relations with Israel. Israel has used spyware and other repression technologies, including disinformation, in what is called “spyware diplomacy.”

Exporting the model of colonial domination

The Israeli disinformation industry, alongside the spyware and corporate espionage industries, attempt to implement the experience of enforcing apartheid and military occupation for customers from all over the world. Mostly, this implementation has failed. The Israeli espionage company Black Cube has been exposed multiple times by its victims. The spyware industry has soured Israel’s foreign relations, and even the disinformation company “Team Jorge” was exposed for planting fake information with French BFMTV host Rashid M’barki, who was fired for publishing the information without verifying it.

With the encouragement of the Israeli government and the experience of lording over Palestinians, disinformation companies operate with little or no scruples. Tal Hanan told the undercover Forbidden Stories journalists that other than fear of reprisals by the Russian or U.S. authorities, or going against his own Zionist loyalties by operating in Israel (“You don’t shit where you eat” he told the journalists), he sets no boundaries on the amount of chaos and suffering that his services would cause, if the price is right. Hanan boasted, for instance, that he used a fake avatar to convince the wife of a political candidate that her husband is having an affair in order to sabotage their marriage and neutralize the candidate.

Another company, Percepto, headed by Lior Chorev who was a political advisor to Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert, did not balk at hiring the services of a known antisemite in order to distribute smears against the Red Cross in the service of a customer in Burkina Faso, just as he did not balk to work for Israeli war criminals. Among their clients is also the Mexican millionaire Tomás Zerón, wanted in Mexico for charges of kidnapping and torture. Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, who has a controversial mining empire in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and is accused of plundering the nation’s natural resources and using disinformation campaigns to protect himself from criticism, has hired Lior Chorev to do public relations work for him, as the U.S. authorities are investigating his DRC operations.

War criminals and the ’legal iron dome’

Tech giants such as Facebook and Twitter are complicit in the crimes committed by disinformation companies. Meta, formerly known as Facebook, sells data on its users for profit. Both Facebook and Twitter profit from the spread of fake news and disinformation, but they crack down on human rights activists instead by silencing them, especially if they are Palestinians. More than this, when a disinformation scandal is exposed, the tech giants quickly delete the fake avatars. They allegedly do so to protect users from disinformation, but in fact they help the disinformation companies cover their tracks.

These days, protests in Israel against the policies of the far-right government are getting a lot of attention. Among the protesters, retired officers, especially from the intelligence units, high-tech employees including from the security sectors, former members of Shin Bet and Mossad, nuclear weapons experts, and even spyware soldiers are especially prominent. These people engage in the protests because the judicial reforms pushed by the far-right Israeli government threaten their careers and possibly their freedom.

As apartheid Israel rapidly becomes a pariah state, and its courts can no longer even maintain the pretense of independently overseeing and holding to account the actions of the military and security forces, the Israeli surveillance profiteers realize that they will no longer be able to act with impunity. They find themselves facing possible charges at the International Criminal Court, sanctions in the U.S. and growing international isolation. Israeli war criminals are in effect losing their “legal iron dome.”6

Israeli governments have allowed the disinformation industry to flourish for two decades as part of a deliberate policy of security-state diplomacy. The gains of such exports are short-term and are recklessly irresponsible in the long run. Although the research by Forbidden Stories is very important in exposing this industry and the extent of damage which it causes, this is not enough.

Because the disinformation industry sways election results, it is almost impossible to track and expose it without access to confidential documents, specifically the authorizations given by the Israeli ministry of defense for each sale of disinformation services by Israeli companies to each and every customer. Until the Israeli government releases those documents, the legal responsibility for these crimes rest only on the Israeli government, and only state governments and international organizations (such as the UN and the international courts) can make Israel accountable.