Tel Aviv Diary: Can Israel Ensure its Technology isn't Used for Evil? | Opinion

An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, on August 28, 2016, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Last month, Max Boot wrote a critical column in The Washington Post on the reported sale of Israeli technology to Saudi Arabia, a technology which had allowed Saudi Arabia to spy on dissidents and helped it capture and kill Jamal Khashoggi.

Boot wrote: "Israel's light is dimmed when veterans of its famed armed forces, whose mission is to defend the Jewish state's freedom, misuse their expertise to aid oppression in other countries."

Boot's article raised important questions. First, is Boot's accusation true? Second, does Israel have a special responsibility to ensure its technology is only used for good? Boot's critique also raises broader questions regarding the nature of tech companies' overall responsibilities—whether it's the Israeli firm, NSO, accused of selling equipment to the Saudis, or Facebook whose platform has been weaponized by many to impact elections or even incite genocide.

NSO denies its software was used for any nefarious purpose. One of NSO's founders, Shalev Hulio told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily newspaper that "there was no use on Khashoggi, including listening, monitoring, tracking, collecting info with any product or technology of NSO."

Hulio went on to say: "In the last half year, the company's products have been part of thwarting several large terror attacks in Europe, both with car bombs and suicide bombers."

Whether Hulio should be believed is another matter, but according to Yedioth correspondent Ronen Bergman, NSO's "Pegasus" system was used to capture El Chapo, the fugitive Mexican drug lord. There is no doubt that such technology can be put to good use—the question is, at what cost?

Some Israelis have found themselves in uncomfortable situations. I met with Yossef Daar, one of the founders of Cyabra. Daar previously worked at a company that specialized in creating fake online identities and using those fabricated personas to discredit people. When Daar first joined the company it worked against terrorist organizations; a noble cause. However, slowly Daar found himself working on much less clearcut projects. So, instead, he left and helped found a company that would fight against the very type of work he had been doing. Daar's new company identifies bogus posts and other negative campaigns against companies and individuals. He is no longer uncomfortable with the work he does. Now, every day when he goes home to his kids he feels he is doing a job he can be proud of.

Obviously, the problem is much more widespread than one company, and is not limited just to the area of cyber. Israel produces a wide range of military and dual-use equipment. Defense exports are a significant business for Israel.

"We cannot be responsible for everything, but we must be cautious and careful," former Prime Minister Ehud Barak told me when we spoke for last week's interview.You should use your judgment, and not a blind algorithm. I am also a chairman of a company (Carbyne) that provides full integral solutions to governments for cyber, but I don't think we would find ourselves in a situation that we supported someone who used it for totally other uses. Though you should know that many technologies can be misused. When you sell some weapons to a dictatorship, you never know how they will use it."

A month ago I attended the Annual Conference on Cybersecurity and Homeland Security. The power of cyber and AI in police work is amazing. One exhibit stayed with me. It was a product attached to a police car that could identify anyone wanted by the police, any vehicle whose owner was wanted, and at the same time ticket anyone parked illegally or speeding—all automatically, while driving down the block. This technology is wonderful and equally scary.
The quintessential question, of course, transcends Israeli technology. During the last two years, we have seen how technology created for good (e.g., Facebook, YouTube) has been used to radicalize people and even foment ethnic cleansing (i.e., Rohingya). The companies involved have made efforts to police the worst offenses. They have not, however, done anything fundamental to change the way they operate — such as eliminating the very algorithms that are the cause of much of the damage; a move which might negatively impact their earnings.

This brings us to the crux of the matter. Israel is at the cutting edge of technology today. Much of Israeli innovation originates in the defense industries. Max Boot wants Israel to be "a light unto the nations"—a wish I certainly share. However, can a country that has been at war for 70 years be expected to be nothing but a "light unto nations"? Forty years ago, Israel's major defense export was the UZI, which is a lethal weapon, but the damage it can do is limited. Today, Israel makes a long list of deadly weapons, advanced electronics, and software systems. The electronics and software are areas that are very grey, what is an essential public good when fighting terrorists, easily becomes bad when fighting dissidents.

Throughout history new technologies have disrupted the established order, doing both good and bad. Today, however, in our interconnected world, the power and speed of those technologies is so great that unless controlled properly the damage those technologies can wreck may sometimes be irreversible. The onus is on Israel, as well as on Facebook, Google and the US government to take responsibility and work to limit this potential damage as much as possible.

Marc Schulman is a multimedia historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​