As Elon Musk carries on with his social network’s transformation, the latest development could have major repercussions for Lebanese users. The businessman, who acquired Twitter in October 2022, announced a major change to the account verification process, requiring users to provide a photo in addition to their ID.
The problem is that AU10TIX, the company chosen to process users’ personal data, is based just outside Tel Aviv. This could complicate access to account verification for citizens of Arab countries that have not normalized their relations with Israel. Notably, many services with close links to Israel are banned in Lebanon, as there is no peace agreement between the two countries.
For Hadi Khoury, an IT expert, the concern is understandable. “The personal data processed by this X subcontractor includes data of a sovereign nature. An identity document is a sensitive document. This raises a number of questions: is this company capable of keeping personal data secure? Is it aware of its responsibilities and its duty to notify in the event of a data leak?”
Links with the Israeli army
Ron Atzmon, the founder of AU10TIX, spent his military service with the Shin Bet’s notorious unit 8200. With a staff numbering between 5,000 and 10,000, this unit is Israel’s main intelligence strike force, providing it with “90 percent of its intelligence material,” Yair Cohen, who headed the unit for five years, told Forbes.
The unit had a rare moment of media exposure in 2010, when the Stuxnet, a malicious computer worm developed jointly with the CIA to reprogram and neutralize Tehran’s nuclear equipment, was discovered. The operation’s success set back the development of Iran’s nuclear program by several years.
More than a mere military unit, 8200 serves as an incubator for Israel’s tech industry, which accounts for 14 percent of the country’s jobs and nearly 20 percent of its GDP. Waze, Wix, Viber and NSO, which produced the infamous Pegasus spyware, have one thing in common: their founders include former members of the unit.
“The problem is the porosity between the Israeli tech and the defense world,” said Khoury. Israel has reached this level of technological sophistication thanks to this porosity and the financial support that links defense to technology start-ups. It’s part of their defense strategy in order to build supremacy.”
But this financial support does not come without a quid pro quo, as it gives the Israeli government privileged access to the information gathered by these companies. In the case of NSO and its Pegasus software, Israel has turned these lines of code into a real diplomatic tool, whether to strengthen its influence in Africa or to accelerate normalization with the Gulf states: Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are both on the company’s client list.
An industry that is increasingly difficult to read
“It’s the same problem that arises in the United States with the Patriot Act or its potential successor, which allows the US government to dip into a number of databases. This is not possible in France, for example, where there are safeguards, thanks in particular to the EU General Data Protection Regulation, which governs how personal data is processed,” said Khoury.
“If tomorrow, for national security reasons, the Israeli government approaches X’s subcontractor and asks to have access to a certain amount of personal data, I’m not sure it’s going to object to that,” he added.
While not all Israeli firms manage sensitive and offensive technologies such as AU10TIX or NSO, the fact remains that Israel’s preponderance in the field of new technologies will become an increasingly thorny issue for Lebanon. The tangle of subcontractors in the digital industry doesn’t help to make things any clearer, said Khoury.
“When I organize workshops for companies, I often ask them to rate their digital subcontractors with a flag according to nationality. At first, there are only a few, but as you go on and consider the subcontractors of the subcontractors, you end up with a multitude of players of different nationalities,” he said.
What is true for companies is no less true for governments, and more and more Lebanese companies and individuals will see their data, whether sensitive or not, passing through Israeli services. Meanwhile, the Lebanese tech industry remains largely marginal, if not non-existent, compared with its neighbor, which has more companies listed on Nasdaq than any other country in the world apart from the United States.
This article was originally published in French in L'Orient-Le Jour. Translation by Joelle El Khoury.