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Canute Thompson | Curious about Jamaica-Israeli connection

Published:Sunday | December 9, 2018 | 12:00 AM
Canute Thompson
Prime Minister Andrew Holness (left) walks alongside Rabbi Yaakov Raskin, co-director of Chabad of Jamaica, during a February 2017 visit to Israel.

I am more than curious and concerned about the Jamaica-Israeli connection, given news that has emerged about the use of Israeli technologies in certain questionable activities globally.

The Gleaner, in a news item titled 'Khashoggi's private WhatsApp messages may offer new clues to killing', carried on Tuesday, December 4, 2018, which was first carried on CNN, reported that the spy software used to hack into Khashoggi's phone, and of another journalist with whom he was in contact, was invented by an Israeli company. That company is now the subject of a lawsuit by the surviving journalist, Omar Abdulaziz.

A report carried in The New York Times references a company known as the NSO Group, which is being sued for actively participating in illegal spying. The NSO Group is an Israeli firm with expertise in aircraft technologies, as well as in cyber-intelligence.

Founded in 2010, it is one of the world's leading companies in the growing, high-demand field of cyber-intelligence. The firm sells cyber-intelligence technologies to governments, but the concern of the lawsuit is that the technology is being used to target journalists. According to the Times report, the two lawsuits, filed in Israel and Cyprus, were brought by a Qatari citizen.

The New York Times report further asserts that the illegal use of the technology for surreptitious purposes has been reported in Mexico, Panama, and the United Arab Emirates. In Mexico, prominent human-rights lawyers, journalists, and anti-corruption activists have been targeted with the use of the technology, although the Government is reported to have told citizens that the technology was being acquired to be used against criminals and terrorists. The lawsuit against the company has been enjoined by lawyers, journalists, and activists.

In Panama, it is alleged that the president used the technology to spy on political rivals and critics. The case in the UAE alleges that an affiliate of the NSO Group attempted to spy on foreign government officials, and in the process, successfully recorded the calls of a journalist.

The Times report explains that "the technology works by sending text messages to a target's smartphone, hoping to bait the person into clicking on them. If the user does, the spyware, known as Pegasus, is secretly downloaded, enabling governments to monitor phone calls, emails, contacts, and potentially even face-to-face conversations conducted nearby".


Intelligence Cooperation


Prime Minister Holness visited Israel in January 2017, and in so, doing broke with tradition as no other Jamaican prime minister had ever visited Israel. For more than 18 months, details of his visit remained a mystery. The most that was reported was that Holness and Netanyahu discussed "... possibilities for cooperation in water, agriculture, and domestic security". (JIS)

On September 19, 2018, (almost 21 months after the visit), Prime Minister Holness, in a statement to Parliament, said:

"As we seek to create the security umbrella for Jamaica, it means that if technology exists in a particular area where people have [certain] expertise, then by all means, Jamaica has to get access to that technology."

The prime minister stated further:

"One of the leading nations in the world for cyber-security is Israel. So I want it to be absolutely clear that we are cooperating with many countries around the world to build our capacity in all kinds of areas ... ."

Three questions jump out at me from these statements by the prime minister:

What specific technology?

What area of expertise?

What guarantees can be given that the rule of law will be observed and the rights of citizens will not be violated?

Member of parliament for South East St Andrew, Julian Robinson, who is also the opposition spokesperson on technology, tabled a number of questions in Parliament on November 6, 2018, to be asked of the prime minister. The two central questions are:

Will the prime minister please state whether or not the Government of Jamaica has entered into an MOU for the establishment of a cyber academy in Jamaica?

If the answer (to the above) is 'yes', will the PM please state the name of the company?

It is to be noted that back in May 2018, the then minister of science, technology, and energy announced in his contribution to the Sectoral Debate that a cyber academy would be built in Jamaica. It is time that we have more details given the recent reports of human rights, invasion of privacy, and murders of journalists. By the time this article is published, the date for the answering of those questions would have passed and an answer may or may not have been given.

There appears to be a public perception that fighting crime inescapably means abusing citizens' rights, and the Government has taken the position that "abrogation, abridgement, and infringement ..." of rights will be par for the course as we seek to combat crime.

Are there limits to this policy of infringement and, more specifically, can the prime minister give the unqualified, and categorical assurance that in the use of technology to target criminals, the said technology will not be used against others, as has been alleged in places such as Mexico, Panama, and the UAE?

- Canute Thompson is head of the Caribbean Centre for Education and Planning and lecturer in educational leadership. Email feedback to and