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Israeli government absent from London spyware conference and pledge

Officials from the Israeli government are not attending a conference in London this week focused on tackling the abuses of spyware, despite the country’s significant share of the export market, according to a list of attendees seen by Recorded Future News.

Jointly hosted by the United Kingdom and France, the Lancaster House cyber conference intends to address “the proliferation of commercial cyber intrusion tools” by launching an initiative called the Pall Mall Process in which the attendees will commit to taking joint-action on the issue.

Despite intending the conference to be an opportunity to engage with multiple stakeholders with the aim of increasing transparency and accountability over the approach to cyber intrusion tools, British government representatives told Recorded Future News that the events on Tuesday and Wednesday are closed to the media.

The government announced that more than 35 states and international organizations are in attendance, alongside civil society organizations, technology companies, and businesses that were described as vendors of cyber intrusion tools.

But the list of attendees obtained by Recorded Future News shows that these vendors — including NCC Group, YesWeHack, and Thales — do not provide the controversial services that the conference is targeting.

The conference follows a joint statement issued last year by the governments of Australia, Canada, Costa Rica, Denmark, France, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, the U.K. and the U.S., calling for actions to tackle cyber proliferation.

While the list shows a greater number of states engaging with the Pall Mall Process than previously signed the joint statement, it also reveals notable absences from the conference; particularly from Israel, Austria, Egypt and North Macedonia — countries which host spyware vendors that have been implicated in human rights abuses.

Dr. Joseph Devanny, a lecturer at the Department for War Studies at King’s College London, told Recorded Future News that the Pall Mall Process was “necessarily” building on the joint-statement.

“Everyone knows that no progress will be made on this issue by preaching within the group of like-minded states. But, although it is billed as a global, multistakeholder process, there are some notable absences from the list of attendees, so much remains to be done,” he added.

Israel’s absence is particularly significant. It accounts for two of the four companies that have been sanctioned by the U.S. for trafficking cyber tools that the U.S. assesses have enabled “transnational repression” by authoritarian governments.

But even among attendees, the pledge to tackling the spyware problem was not universally accepted. Another document seen by Recorded Future News reveals that only 24 of the 35 states and international organizations attending the conference signed the pledge acknowledging “the need for greater international action and multi-stakeholder consultation.”

Countries who attended but did not sign the pledge according to the document include Hungary, Mexico, Spain, and Thailand, all of which have been linked to significant spyware abuses.

Those who did sign the pledge — including Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Singapore, which have hosted spyware vendors — agreed to “engage in an ongoing and globally inclusive dialogue, complementary to other multilateral initiatives” and to meet again in France next year.

“The conference declaration is insubstantial, but it would be unfair to judge the effectiveness of a process by how thin it was at the outset. The proof of its success or failure will be how the process develops from this point onwards,” said Devanny.

The War Studies lecturer said it was significant that the process was being led by Britain and France rather than the United States “at a time when the possibility of another Trump presidency must create doubt about the continuity of U.S. leadership on this issue.” He added: “Having said that, it is hard to imagine that states could make significant progress on this without active U.S. engagement.”

The United States is also among the signatories, and its participation follows Washington on Monday announcing concrete action in restricting visas for people “involved in the misuse of commercial spyware.”

The technology “threatens privacy and freedoms of expression, peaceful assembly, and association,” Antony Blinken, the U.S. Secretary of State, said in a statement. “Such targeting has been linked to arbitrary detentions, forced disappearances, and extrajudicial killings in the most egregious of cases.”

“Additionally, the misuse of these tools presents a security and counterintelligence threat to U.S. personnel. The United States stands on the side of human rights and fundamental freedoms and will continue to promote accountability for individuals involved in commercial spyware misuse,” Blinken added.

The visa restrictions follow President Joe Biden signing an executive order banning federal agencies from using commercial spyware that could pose security risks to the U.S. or had already been misused by foreign actors — seeking to address a growing number of incidents of spyware abuse to target U.S. officials, government systems, and ordinary citizens — as well as the sanctions against two Israeli, one Russian, and one Singaporean company.

Although the Israeli government does not regularly respond to criticisms — including domestic pushback — over its spyware industry, which needs to receive an export license from the Ministry of Defence to sell its hacking tools abroad, the country’s absence from the conference comes amid tensions with the British and French governments over the war in Gaza.

Despite supporting Israel’s right to self-defense in the wake of the terror attacks on October 7 — which killed approximately 1,200 Israelis and has left more than a hundred others remaining as hostages — officials from both countries have expressed concern about the “desperate” humanitarian situation in Gaza, and criticized Israeli ministers’ support for illegal settlements in occupied Palestinian territories.

Neither the Israeli embassy in London nor the British government responded to requests for comment.

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Alexander Martin

Alexander Martin

is the UK Editor for Recorded Future News. He was previously a technology reporter for Sky News and is also a fellow at the European Cyber Conflict Research Initiative.