The whole of Israel’s hacker ecosystem “is devoted to the effort to gather any kind of information,” one analyst tells Forbes.
Since the Hamas attacks on October 7, Israel has called on its much-vaunted cybersecurity and surveillance industries to assist in the war on Hamas. Asides from reaching out to hacker reservists, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) has also employed the services of often-controversial spyware companies to assist on various intelligence efforts. That includes Herzliya-based NSO Group, whose iPhone hacking software Pegasus has allegedly been used by governments to target activists and journalists — a claim the company has often denied.
One focus for cybersecurity experts has been to help hack into phones and computers of the missing and the dead, four individuals from Israel’s cyber and intelligence industries told Forbes. All asked to remain anonymous as they were not authorized to speak on the record.
Remotely breaking into and silently monitoring the smartphones and laptops of abductees could help the IDF learn more about the movements and activities of Hamas. Forbes previously reported that Hamas had used abductees’ phones to call relatives and friends to harass them.
One analyst who has worked for a number of Israel’s spyware companies confirmed to Forbes there was a concerted effort to not just access missing people’s electronics but also their social media accounts. “The entire ecosystem is devoted to the effort to gather any kind of information,” they said.
An intelligence industry entrepreneur and a former officer of Israel’s signals intelligence agency Unit 8200 added that some efforts were led by “offensive” cyber companies like NSO. Volunteer hackers from outside the spyware market have also been involved. “These efforts are joint with the IDF and security agencies,” he added.
“The families want to see if there are any last moment pictures or messages of their loved ones.”
A source with knowledge of NSO’s operations said Israel’s intelligence agencies had been given full access to use its Pegasus iPhone hacking software for any of its work targeting Hamas. Pegasus has made headlines in recent years for use against civil society. Most recently, it was allegedly used to spy on an exiled Russian journalist living in Germany.
Another founder from Israel’s cyber surveillance industry said that there was a “huge effort” to try to unlock phones of those who were murdered in the October 7 Hamas attacks, where the families had physical access to the device of their relative. “The families want to see if there are any last moment pictures or messages of their loved ones,” he said.
The IDF did not respond to a comment request by the time of publication. NSO declined to comment.
Another controversial company that may be involved in these efforts is Rayzone, a surveillance provider that can monitor the location of a device without needing to hack into it. An executive at Rayzone said the company was supporting its country “as much as we can.” Asked if that involved hacking into phones of the dead and missing, he added, “I know everyone did everything they could to help.”
As Forbes previously reported in 2020, Rayzone is able to masquerade as a legitimate part of the mobile advertising market known as a demand-side platform. These entities act as middlemen between app makers and ad networks, the former sharing information about devices on which their software is installed, while the latter looking for partners to promote their advertisements.
Earlier this month, Israeli publication Haaretz reported other surveillance companies including NSO rivals like Paragon and Candiru had also been providing assistance to Israel’s war effort.
The details of their work remain under wraps. Israel’s military and intelligence agencies also appear to be keeping families of the missing in the dark about attempts to use technology to find their relatives. Since his girlfriend Inbar Haiman went missing from the Supernova festival on October 7, Noam Alon has been working with her family to dig through fragments of information available online to find out anything they can about her welfare. On Telegram, they uncovered footage of Haiman, a graffiti artist also known as Pink, being dragged away by Hamas, unconscious and with an injury to her head.
They’ve not heard anything substantial about her status or location in the three weeks since they saw the grim footage, however. But the IDF did request information about Haiman’s phone, which Alon said the family willingly gave. “I guess they located the phone but they didn’t give us any information about it,” he said. He continues to wait for news about Haiman either from Israel or Hamas.