Suggesting New Year’s resolutions for other people doesn’t seem like a best practice, but here we go. I’d like to suggest a new path for the national media.
I’ve known so many journalists who take pride in safeguarding against their own bias, working so hard to write fairly and objectively. All of this is part of why I’m not quick to cry anti-Israel bias in the national media. But when it comes to the recent coverage of spyware produced by an Israeli company – called NSO Group – I’m left grasping for understanding.
On Dec. 3, the New York Times ran a story on the Israel-based NSO Group enabling hacking: “Israeli Company’s Spyware Is Used to Target U.S. Embassy Employees in Africa.” It was on the front page of the print edition.
The big news apparently is that a company sold software and the software was used against American officials. I look forward to all the future New York Times coverage of companies everywhere that sell things that are later used by buyers against America.
But no, it’s not that simple, I imagine the New York Times would say. The United States and Israel are friends, and the company is linked to Israeli government and that’s why this is front page-worthy!
OK, then, I look forward to all the future front-page New York Times coverage of companies in countries that are friends with America, and linked to their governments, that sell things that are later used by buyers against America.
Notwithstanding my sarcasm on an apparent lack of parity in coverage of alleged bad actors, if an Israeli company is selling software to bad people and it’s used for bad things, that’s something Israel should address. It’s an issue that America has a right to raise. I don’t question that. I question the nature of the story and the placement choice, given that the New York Times only places about 30 stories a day on the front page of its app. I mean, there’s an awful lot going on in the world.
Here’s how the New York Times, deep in the story, rationalizes its choice: “China has used similar types of spyware to repress Muslim minorities, as has Russia against dissidents. Saudi Arabia is believed to have used it in the killing of Mr. Khashoggi, and the subsequent effort to cover up the crime …. But until now, it was not known to have been directed at American diplomats.”
What do I know, but I have a feeling this is likely not the first time somebody has directed spyware at American diplomats.
The Associated Press ran a Dec. 4 story along the same lines as the New York Times piece, “AP Source: NSO Group spyware used to hack State employees.” The story ignores any spyware trouble that might come from China, Russia or elsewhere, and labels “Israel’s NSO Group” as “the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire company.”
That characterization, in the first paragraph of the piece, is attributed to “a person familiar with the matter.” In journalism, we call that “attribution to one anonymous source,” a practice best reserved for special situations. I’m thinking of one former editor of mine, an old newspaper man, may his memory be a blessing, who would have laughed and then gently told me to change it if I had turned that in when I was a reporter for a secular newspaper.
It also just so happens that Associated Press policy does not allow the use of anonymous sourcing for opinion, according to their own website. Sounds good to me.
Another Associated Press quote from the story tells us: “There is no exceptionalism when it comes to American phones in diplomats’ pockets.”
Yet Haaretz noted on Dec. 5 that the technology was designed to not work on US phone numbers, which are numbers that start with a plus-one international code. The American diplomats who were hacked were using non-American numbers, according to the newspaper. Maybe the software could have been designed to detect whether the targeted individuals were Americans, we’re told. This seems like a relevant nuance, but it didn’t make it into the Dec. 3-4 pieces from the New York Times and the Associated Press.
“The (Israeli) Defense Ministry imposed new restrictions on the export of cyber warfare tools on Monday following a major international backlash ….” reported the Times of Israel on Dec. 6. The Israeli government is now requiring NSO Group to report how the software will be used. Increasing scrutiny could bring more trouble for the company and the Dec. 5 Haaretz headline actually reads: “Targeting US officials could mean death sentence for Israeli NSO.”
NSO Group asserts that its software is for use against terrorists and criminals. I have no idea if that’s true, or if it’s used for assisting in truly terrible human rights violations and they are complicit, as has been alleged. If so, that’s bad, and Israel should press ahead with its increasing oversight and investigation. But I think it’s worth hearing what NSO Group has to say. Here, I bring you far more of their Dec. 3 statement than you’ll see elsewhere:
“Last night, following an inquiry we received alleging Ugandan phone numbers used by US government officials were hacked, we immediately shut down all the customers potentially relevant to this case, due to the severity of the allegations, and even before we began the investigation.
“This termination took place despite the fact that there is no indication the phones were targeted by NSO’s technology. The claims of all involved parties specifically mentioned there is no indication, let alone proof, that it was NSO’s tools that were used by these customers.
“We emphasize that the Pegasus software is installed based on phone numbers only, and the tools are incapable of being installed on US (+1) numbers. This case doesn’t involve US phone numbers, and the company had no way to know who the persons monitored by our customers were.
“If the allegations turn out to be true, they are a blunt violation of all commitments and agreements that company has with its customers, and the company will take legal action against these customers.”
This brings us to my proposed New Year’s resolution for the national media: resolve to treat Israel the way you treat others and how you would like to be treated.
Are you writing about Chinese and Russian efforts with the same gusto that you are applying to efforts from within Israel? Are you reflecting, in coverage of software doing something, that the software was made to not do that thing? Are you giving the alleged bad actors a fair hearing, so they can make an argument regarding their intent?
We can do better on Israel.
Rob Golub is editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle.