An investigative report reveals that an Israeli company is involved in supplying spyware to the Ugandan government, which is being used for the persecution of LGBT activists in the country.
By Tanya Rubinstein
In Uganda today, homosexual relations are illegal. Ugandan legislators are trying to make LGBT activities illegal, including LGBT organizations themselves. Activists are persecuted, the media “outs” LGBTs, and there are reports of widespread violence against members of the community.
A recent investigative report by Buzzfeed’s Sheera Frenkel revealed that the Israeli company NICE Systems, along with the Italian company Hacking Team, were involved in supplying spyware to different countries — including Uganda — which according to Buzzfeed, (based on correspondences published by Wikileaks) made use of the technology to track LGBT activists.
So who are the main actors in this story?
NICE is an Israeli company that was founded in 1986 by a group of former soldiers belonging to Israel’s prestigious Unit 8200, part of the IDF’s intelligence corps. Before the company began creating products for the civilian market, it worked on developing communications systems for security industries and intelligence services.
Hacking Team is an Italian company that provides information gathering solutions for government bodies. The company created a program for intelligence gathering, which is installed directly on any electronic device. In July of this year, Wikileaks published correspondences revealing that groups in Israel are interested in Hacking Team’s programs, although it is unclear whether they were bought and used.
On its website, Hacking Team obligates itself to not export its intelligence gathering technology to anyone who will use it to violate human rights. According to Frenkel, however, Hacking Team representatives did not bother to check just how its programs will be used, despite widespread reports of oppressive measures being used against the LGBT community in Uganda.
For dissidents against oppressive regimes, and specifically for members of the LGBT community, gathering intelligence on private individuals by government bodies not only thwarts their activities, it puts them directly at risk. We saw this last year, after a group of Unit 8200 veterans published a letter in which they admit that as part of their service, they blackmailed gay Palestinians in exchange for information, or in order to turn them into collaborators.
The transition of soldiers into private enterprise upon their release from the army is a well-known phenomenon, which is based on the close relations between the security industry — including private companies — and the IDF, whether in the trials conducted by the army using technology developed by private companies, or through the military expertise used by private companies to develop the technology itself.
International arms trade treaties define intelligence gathering as “dual-use technologies,” which can be used for both civilian and military needs. When sold on the market, these technologies are supervised to take into account their dangerous potential. Due to the dangers of supplying such technology to regimes that may use them against civilian populations, it is imperative to demand that companies developing and marketing intelligence gathering technology take responsibility for their product and ensure it doesn’t end up in the wrong hands.
This case exemplifies how spyware technology sold to human rights violators can be used for the violent persecution of oppressed communities, not to mention any citizen who is stripped of his/her right to privacy. These governmental bodies gain by purchasing effective tools for controlling the population, while private companies profit off human rights violations.
Tanya Rubinstein is the head of the “Hamushim” project, as part of the Coalition of Women for Peace. This article was first published in Hebrew on Haokets.