July 21, 2021 - 5:46pm

Tel Aviv

In a 2018 article on surveillance technology, the historian Yuval Noah Harari speculated about the totalitarian potential of certain Israeli practices of control, especially in the West Bank.

“Israel is a leader in the field of surveillance technology, and has created in the occupied West Bank a working prototype for a total-surveillance regime. Already today whenever Palestinians make a phone call, post something on Facebook, or travel from one city to another, they are likely to be monitored by Israeli microphones, cameras, drones, or spy software… It therefore takes surprisingly few Israeli soldiers to effectively control the roughly 2.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank.”
- Yuval Noah Harari, The Atlantic

Recent days have proved Harari right. The Pegasus Project and Amnesty Tech have revealed the extent of the surveillance originating from the Israeli company NSO. Their malware Pegasus, is allegedly able to monitor every aspect of a target’s life, from reading all their online communications to secretly filming them. (NSO defends its creation by saying that these tools are only to be sold to governments and only to be used against criminals and terrorists.)

Israel’s ultra-technological security apparatus is not without its positive aspects, as Harari hints. The relatively low death-toll in Israel’s wars and the steady decline in terrorism there is partly due to this rigorous digital tracking of every aspect of Palestinian life.

The results? Deaths in Israel due to Palestinian violence have gone from 457 at the height of the Second Intifada in 2002 to three dead Israelis in 2020 — although that number will likely increase due to the Gaza war 2021, it is unlikely to surpass fifteen deaths.

The Israeli conflict management system is now being offered as a lucrative export. It is an intriguing idea. Why fight a conflict if you can manage it with technological solutions? If it can save lives, what is the problem? And if it is only sold to governments, that sounds safer still — rather that than mafia bosses, terrorists, drug kingpins, and other bad actors getting hold of the technology.

The trouble, of course, is that some governments are themselves some of the worst abusers of people’s freedom. As Harari feared, a powerful system of control can be implemented with tools like Pegasus. Software like this is a tempting weapon for all governments, everywhere. In the short term, such coercive measures, as Israel proves, can make the public safer. But these erosions of privacy risk the further erosion of freedom of expression, and real political opposition — which stores up the potential for greater violence later on.

Tobias Gisle Swedish-born writer based in Tel Aviv and writes for Times of Israel and Fokus.