Português (Brasil)
Get Involved


Surveillance State, Inc.

How a Team of Israeli Hackers Profits and Provides for the Reactionary International
Surveillance State, Inc.

Zerón on the Run

In September 2019, unbeknownst to authorities or the press, Tomás Zerón De Lucio quietly boarded a flight from Canada to Israel. Once the former head of the Mexican Criminal Investigation Unit (AIC) under President Enrique Peña Nieto, Zerón was now prepared to make Tel Aviv his new home.  

For the past year, Zerón had been on the run from the new administration of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. He faced an arrest warrant for tampering the investigation of the murder and disappearance of 43 students in Iguala in 2014 – a tragedy which had rocked Mexican politics to its core.  The longer he remained in Canada, the greater the risk Zerón ran of being handed over to Mexican authorities. He needed to find a safe haven, and quickly. 

To date, Zerón still remains in Tel Aviv. Israel does not have an extradition treaty with Mexico, and it has refused to extradite him despite repeated direct requests and negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and an Interpol red notice for his arrest.1 Israel cites Mexico’s support of a Palestinian state as the reason for its recalcitrance2 – but Zerón’s protection goes far beyond political convenience. 

It is a story of decade-long friendships with Israeli businessmen and former security officials, generous contracts with Israeli cyber surveillance firms, and business partnerships which enabled human rights abuses at Zerón’s hands. Ultimately, it is a story that demonstrates the immense power of the Israeli cybersurveillance and hacking industry – and a story which uncovers the invisible networks fueling the reactionary international.

israel 01

From Mexico to Israel: Weaving Zerón’s Safety Net 

In December 2020, Proseco reported that Tomás Zerón was peacefully residing in a posh Tel Aviv apartment owned by Israeli businessman David Avital.3 A long-time friend of Zerón, Avital is a former director and large shareholder (31 percent) of M.T.R.X. Technologies, a subsidiary of the Israeli cybersurveillance company Rayzone and developer of military-grade cell phone tracking software.4 Avital also owns 100% of the IDR company in Mexico, which markets wiretapping tools marketed by Rayzone. All three of these companies – Rayzone, M.T.R.X., and IDR – worked closely with Zerón during his time heading the AIC, helping him obtain a range of intelligence systems and surveillance technologies. Avital and Zerón had therefore been friends and business partners for many years before Zerón came to his doorstep. 

The networks which helped Zerón flee Mexico, settle in Israel, and resist extradition all share this common thread: the Israeli private cybersurveillance sector. Rayzone and its subsidiaries are one component of a dizzying network of Israeli cyber surveillance firms that have exploded in the past fifteen years, all of which utilize alarmingly precise hacking, surveillance, and misinformation technologies to inform and arm the forces of the reactionary international – including state interests in Mexico. The founders, shareholders, consultants, and clients of these firms overlap so heavily that it is often difficult to discern when the territory of one firm ends and the other begins. Understanding this network – its leaders, its power, and its global reach – is crucial to understanding some of the most insidious work of the reactionary international.

israel 02

The Rise of the Israeli Cyber Surveillance Industry: NSO Group, Pegasus, and Sounding the Global Alarm

In July 2021, a report from Amnesty International,5 Forbidden Stories,6 and a coalition of other news organizations7 uncovered an alarming story: countries across the globe were using military-grade spyware called Pegasus to hack the phones of at least dozens of activists, journalists, politicians, and other individuals, with a leaked database of over 50,000 phone numbers indicating that the hacking could be far more widespread. Apple users might recall the prominent news cycle that summer, which urged iPhone users to install the newest software update hurriedly patched by Apple to avoid future security breaches. 

The spyware was developed and distributed by the Israeli firm NSO Group, a leading cyber-intelligence company founded in 2010. Once remotely installed on a user’s phone, Pegasus can extract text messages, contact lists, calendar records, emails, locations, and virtually any data imaginable.8 It can also gather sounds and video from the phone’s environment, even when the phone appears to be off. NSO Group sold Pegasus to military intelligence and other government agencies across the globe, including the U.S. FBI;9 it claimed to “make a world a safe place” by assisting governments and law enforcement in tracking alleged terrorists, kidnappers, and drug lords.10 

israel 03

In reality, there were virtually no checks on the usage of the product, which enables states to spy on dissidents and political opponents. The 50,000 phone numbers discovered in the leak were scattered across the world. By far the largest share – 15,000 numbers – were based in Mexico, with countless of them connected to President Peña Nieto’s government, its political opponents, and various activist groups exposing government corruption.11

The 2021 Pegasus scandal made headlines across the globe. But this discovery was one in a long series of warnings about the rapid rise and dangers of NSO Group. As early as 2016, the Toronto-based research group Citizen Lab first discovered that internationally-recognized Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor had been targeted by Pegasus, likely by the UAE government.12 A series of reports about Pegasus data violations across the world continued to surface between 2016 and 2021, when the bulk data breach occurred.

NSO Group is just one of countless actors in a burgeoning and competitive sector of spyware. Between 2011 and 2023, at least seventy-four governments contracted with a range of commercial firms to acquire spyware technology.13 Among these, fifty-six governments obtain this technology from firms based in or connected to Israel, who is by far the leading exporter of spyware. While NSO Group is at the forefront of these firms, other Israeli companies also have considerable presence – including Rayzone, Cellebrite, Cytrox, Candiru, and more. 

“We’re Nothing”: Team Jorge and the New Era of Hacking and Misinformation 

As these surveillance companies continued to thrive, an even more insidious offshoot of the industry began to form. In 2023, a consortium of dozens of journalists uncovered the existence of “Team Jorge”: a covert team of primarily Israeli contractors, connected through underground channels, who have manipulated over thirty national-level elections across the globe through hacking and widespread misinformation campaigns on social media.14

Team Jorge’s most lethal weapon is the reach of its covert global network. The group provides services to private actors, not state clients, and operates outside the bounds of legality. Its existence is not publicly identifiable, and it is composed of a loose web of actors and firms operating under the radar to evade accountability. It was for this reason that it took undercover journalists years to identify the true identity of its leader “Jorge”: Tal Hanan, the CEO of Demoman International, a firm contracted with the Israeli Ministry of Defense. 

israel 04

Hanan was committed to the secrecy of his networks. During a meeting with undercover journalists, he asked if they had read what was written on the door of his office, and then said: “Nothing. It says nothing. That’s who we are. We’re nothing.”15 Ultimately, journalists uncovered that Team Jorge was a loose collaboration among industry and state surveillance leaders, including leaders of Rayzone and Cambridge Analytica.

Similar to industry competitors like NSO Group, Team Jorge utilizes incredible surveillance technology. It targets the phones of important government leaders and harvests sensitive data, often even controlling phones remotely to send messages on behalf of the target. But Team Jorge also wields social media to steer public opinion in favor of its clients. The group developed a stunning database of fake social media profiles to spread misinformation online, skewing public opinion and obscuring the corruption of politicians. Its software Advanced Impact Media Solutions (A.I.M.S.) was groundbreaking in its field, hosting over 30,000 online avatars with convincing social media presence, many of which held accounts tied across multiple platforms. In the experience of undercover journalists reporting through Forbidden Stories:

Using keywords, [A.I.M.S.] can create posts, articles, comments or tweets in any language with a “positive,” “negative,” or “neutral” tone. After entering the words “Chad,” “president,” “brother,” and “Déby,” for instance, Jorge commanded the tool to produce 10 negative tweets about the Chadian government. Twelve seconds later, they appeared. “Enough is enough, we need to put an end to incompetence and nepotism of president of Chad brother Déby,” one read. “The Chad people have suffered enough under the rule of President Brother Déby,” read another. “One operator can hold 300 profiles, so in two hours, all the country will speak the messages or the narrative [we] want,” one of Jorge’s associates said.

israel 05

In 2022, Hanan claimed that Team Jorge was responsible for influencing “33 presidential campaigns” across the globe, “27 of which were successful”. While the majority of Team Jorge’s operations remain opaque, investigations indicate that Team Jorge utilized its hacking and disinformation services to hack the phones of senior members of President Ruto’s campaign in Kenya in 2022; disabled the phones of All Progressives Congress party (APC) leaders in the 2015 Nigerian elections, in order to aid the presidential bid of Goodluck Jonathan; created a campaign of support for the embezzling Isaias brothers of Ecuador; slander Gavin Newsom during his gubernatorial campaign in California; placed false media stories in France about the harms of sanctions on Russia; disrupted the 2014 referendum on Catalan Independence; and disseminated false information to journalists about former Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez in 2012, among other efforts.16

Perhaps the most telling sign of Team Jorge’s global networks is its close collaboration with Cambridge Analytica: the British company which infamously used the personal data of nearly 87 million Facebook users to influence voters through misinformation on social media.17 Known for having manipulated the 2016 U.S. presidential election for Donald Trump’s victory and steering voters in favor of a Brexit vote in the UK, Cambridge Analytica also sold its services to clients in approximately sixty other countries. Team Jorge provided “opposition research” to Cambridge Analytica, hacking private emails and phones of politicians to offer personal data for Cambridge Analytica’s campaigns18 – including hacking the cellphones of opposition leaders in the 2015 Nigerian election, in which Cambridge Analytica played a massive role.19 Leaked documents also show that Team Jorge also marketed an early version of A.I.M.S. to Cambridge Analytica in 2017, helping them to create avatars on social media to parrot political messaging on a mass scale. Meanwhile, Cambridge Analytica held close ties to NSO Group and utilized Pegasus, in addition to doing business with a number of other Israeli cyber surveillance firms.

israel 06

The shocking global reach of Team Jorge – a handful of actors connected through a web of Israeli cybersurveillance – illustrates just how powerful and pervasive the Israeli cyber surveillance industry is.  The case of Mexico and Tomás Zerón illustrates the depth of this industry, its terrifying capabilities, and its global reach. 

Mexico: An Early Laboratory for Israeli Surveillance Technology

As the industry boomed in the early 2010s, states began to offer massive contracts to utilize this dangerous technology – and Mexico was an early adopter, becoming one of the first clients of NSO Group as early as 2006.20 In 2011, Mexico was the first state client in the world to buy NSO’s Pegasus software, becoming a “laboratory” for the technology as it developed over the years.21 Operating outside of judicial oversight, the military was the first branch to purchase Pegasus – but it didn’t become normalized until 2014, when the Office of the Attorney General purchased Pegasus in a $32 million contract.22

The key broker of this deal was none other than the director of the Criminal Investigation Agency (AIC): Tomás Zerón.23 Between 2012 and 2018, Mexico spent about $300 million in government contracts with NSO Group alone. Leaked emails revealed that Zéron had developed a close partnership with Uri Emmanuel Ansbacher, the Mexico representative of NSO Group. Together, the two men arranged a lucrative kickbacks deal for the purchases of NSO Group spyware.24 Mexico rapidly became NSO's largest state client, using its range of spyware technology to target journalists, dissidents, human rights lawyers, politicians from all political affiliations, including the sixteen-year-old child of Carmen Aristegui, a prominent Mexican journalist who uncovered the Casa Blanca scandal.25 Investigators identified over 1,500 numbers selected by the Mexican government for potential Pegasus surveillance – by far the largest of any country.26

As one of the most prominent surveillance states in the world, Mexico’s technology apparatus relied on far more than just NSO Group. It held contracts with as many as 25 private companies, many of which were based outside of Israel – including the Italian firm Hacking Team.27 Other Israeli companies, such as Rayzone and its subsidiaries, also sold surveillance technology to Mexico while Zerón was in office. As written in Proceso, Zerón was “one of the key figures for the cybersurveillance industry during Peña Nieto’s term: he chose which systems were purchased and from which suppliers, allowing him to forge strategic alliances with businessmen from the sector”.28 

In 2014, when Zerón found himself in the middle of one of the worst scandals in recent Mexican history, these strategic alliances became more important than ever.

A Conspiracy of Silence: Using Pegasus to Bury the Ayotzinapa case 

On September 26, 2014, forty-three college students from Ayotzinapa boarded buses to Mexico City, preparing to join a demonstration commemorating a 1968 student massacre by the Mexican military. While on route, they were abducted by local police and never seen again. 

The tragedy sparked international outrage and shed light on the endemic of disappearances that had plagued Mexico for years, quickly becoming a symbol of Mexico’s corrupt justice system.29 Within days, over fifty thousand people piled into the streets of Mexico City, chanting: “Nos Faltan 43!” (We’re missing forty-three!) and “Vivos se los llevaron, vivos los queremos!” (They took them alive, we want them alive!). For weeks, protestors ransacked and burned government offices across Guerrero state, demanding answers from state officials.

As head of the AIC, Tomas Zéron was tasked as the top government investigator of the case. After a months-long inquiry, Zerón fabricated a “historic truth”: local police had colluded with a criminal group to kill the students, burn their bodies, and dispose of them in a river.30 A tragic story – and one which absolved the state of culpability.

israel 07

As community advocates worked to uncover the truth, Zerón and his team used NSO Group’s Pegasus software to surveil them and curtail their efforts.31 Lawyers representing families of the disappeared students had their phones hacked,32 as did the executive director of one of the chief human rights groups in Mexico, which was advocating for the victims’ families.33 Zerón also targeted the phones of a group of international investigators tasked with working on the case.34 

Despite this targeting, the international panel successfully released its damning investigation in 2016: it accused Mexican officials of stonewalling the case at every turn, obscuring evidence and preventing the truth from being revealed. Zerón was at the top of the list of guilty actors, charged with torturing detainees to induce testimony and falsifying evidence to construct his “historic truth”. 

Under pressure, Zerón resigned from his post in 2016 and was appointed to another government position. After President Andrés Manuel López Obrador took office and reopened the case, Zerón knew his time was up; he finally fled to Israel in 2019.

When interviewed in The New York Times in 2021, an investigator of the case emphasized the attitude of the state towards the case of the Ayotzinapa 43: “Zerón is part of a conspiracy of silence”.35 With the help of a global network of firms, Zerón and the Peña Nieto administration worked to erase the truth; and due to his long-standing relationships with Israeli cybersurveillance executives – including NSO Group’s Emmanuel Ansbacher and Rayzone’s David Avital – Zerón arrived safely in Tel Aviv, leaving a trail of blood and grief in his wake. 

Team Jorge Comes to Zerón’s Rescue 

In July 2020, while Zerón resided in Tel Aviv, more incriminating evidence was leaked. Footage emerged of a detainee kneeling on the ground, shirtless, and covered with a bag on his head; above him, Zerón roughly directs his testimony: “A la primera mamada te mato, güey” – One wrong move and I’ll kill you, dumbass

israel 08

A few days prior, Mexico had already announced its intention to extradite Zerón, unaware that he had already fled to Israel.36 The release of this video caused an uproar, fueling an already-rampant fire of bitterness towards Zéron and building pressure for his arrest. Seemingly out of nowhere, an unusual wave of support then emerged for Zerón on Twitter and Facebook. Dozens of profiles began sharing posts in his defense:  

“These accusations are simply an orchestrated campaign against an innocent man by corrupt President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.”37

Team Jorge had called on its A.I.M.S. software to  rescue Zerón’s reputation.38 The fake profiles posted articles and videos showing flattering photos of Zerón, emphasizing his heroic work in capturing the drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, and argued that the charges against him were politically motivated. They accused President López Obrador of corruption, and shared news articles – likely also planted by Team Jorge – which painted Zerón in a positive light.39

Unfortunately for Zerón, the campaign did not gain traction beyond its fake avatars. But his allies continue to protect him in Israel, ensuring his safety for the foreseeable future.  

Battling a Hydra: The Complexity of a Global Network 

While Zéron serves as a powerful example of the Mexican surveillance state, he is neither the first nor the last government official to build close partnerships with the Israeli cyber hacking world. To date, Mexico remains the  largest and the longest-standing user of Pegasus. When President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to office in 2018, he promised to put an end to the “illegal” spying of the past40 – but since then, the state has continued to tap the phones of dozens of prominent human rights advocates as recently as 2022.41 Rayzone has also continued to deal with the Mexican government, providing geolocation and surveillance systems to the Attorney General’s Office in 2019 and 2020.42 While the government claims its commitment to investigating the case of the Ayotzinapa 43, the culture of a “conspiracy of silence” permeates through countless other anti-corruption and human rights campaigns in Mexico. It continues to be aided by a ring of companies and individuals who, using their powerful technology, wield the levers of power across the globe.

Indeed, Mexico is just one of countless battlefields controlled by the global spyware industry. As the convoluted web of Zerón’s allies illustrates, there is no one firm or individual which dictates the progression and targets of these cybersurveillance and misinformation campaigns – but the close relationships between these distinct firms certainly blurs the boundaries between them. Within Team Jorge alone, Forbidden Stories identified network collaboration with the Israeli state security and intelligence training firm Demoman International, which has operated in Israel, the US, Switzerland, Spain, Croatia, the Philippines, and Colombia, among others; the British surveillance firm Cambridge Analytica; Rayzone, an Israeli cyber weapons company with subsidiaries across the globe; Goren Amir, a leading Israeli lobbying firm; multiple actors within the International Monetary Fund, including Martin Rodil, an advisor to the U.S. government on Venezuelan politics (with whom Hanan founded the intelligence firm Global Resource Solutions); Roger Noriega, the deputy Secretary of State under President George W. Bush; Mashi Meidan, former head of an Israeli security company in Panama and former member of the Israeli Shin Bet; and countless others. The coordinated cooperation of these actors, among others, has led to a global reach that is difficult to comprehend, with a handful of individuals playing a direct role in political developments on every continent. 

israel 09

Backed by the Red, White, and Blue

By far the most pivotal foreign force in the development of these Israeli firms has been the United States. It has both propelled the distribution of commercial spyware and policed it, changing approaches based on what is most beneficial to U.S. interests. 

Prior to the Pegasus scandal of 2021, various branches of government showed interest in procuring Pegasus and similar technologies from Israeli firms. In 2014, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) met with WestBridge, the U.S. sales arm of NSO Group, to discuss purchasing Pegasus (it had already spent at least three years using similar technology from the Italian company Hacking Team).43 In 2018, long after Pegasus had been proven to be used in human rights violations around the globe, the FBI purchased a version of Pegasus and paid NSO Group approximately $5 million over the course of two years to “test” the technology.44 Despite the repeated news developments of Pegasus’s abuses, the FBI diligently  prepared to deploy Pegasus and its sibling software Phantom between 2020 and 2021, preparing materials for other agencies and discussing the legal ramifications with the Justice Department. Amid belabored domestic considerations, the CIA easily purchased Pegasus for Djibouti, a country with a long record of human rights abuses, to assist the U.S. in “combating terrorism”.45

israel 10

In October 2021, after the Pegasus scandal rocked international diplomacy, The U.S. Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group and Candiru,46 an Israeli surveillance company which was found to have spied on American targets abroad.47 In a national security strategy outline, President Biden stated his administration would fight the “illegitimate” use of these Israeli cyber surveillance technologies, proclaiming its commitment to “stand against digital authoritarianism”. The move dealt a debilitating blow to NSO’s global standing, and the FBI ceased its pursuit of Pegasus altogether; but its copy of Pegasus remains ready for use in a New Jersey office building, and early investigations have indicated the FBI may still be in covert dealings with NSO Group.48 Its current halt on NSO contracts also has not precluded usage of other advanced surveillance technology. In a legal brief issued in late 2022, the FBI stated: 

Just because the F.B.I. ultimately decided not to deploy [Pegasus]  in support of criminal investigations does not mean it would not test, evaluate and potentially deploy other similar tools for gaining access to encrypted communications used by criminals.49

A few strategic words from the White House cannot reverse the country’s deep commitment to surveillance, nor its deep ties to Israel at every level of government. The DEA currently uses Graphite, a similar hacking tool from the Israeli firm Paragon.50 At the local level, over two thousand municipal police departments use digital forensic technology from private firms, countless of which are based in Israel.51 For example, the Los Angeles Police Department has long used Israeli drones52 and began working with the Israeli firm Cobweb Technologies in 2023, using AI-powered social media surveillance software to generate warrant-free intelligence.53 Cobweb Technologies also helps the Texas Department of Public Safety54 and the DHS track migrants.55 U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) partnered with Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest military company, to build surveillance towers along the U.S.-Mexico border – including littered throughout the inside of the Tohono O’odham reservation on the Arizona-Mexico border.56 Before the Biden Administration blacklisted NSO Group, the San Diego57 and New York58 Police departments had both met with NSO officials and received demos in Pegasus, but did not sign contracts. Dozens of police departments in major cities across the U.S. have regularly traveled to Israel for training in aggressive policing tactics.59 The examples are endless; the current state of U.S. surveillance, be it at the federal, state, or local level, would be impossible without their close relationships to Israeli cyber surveillance and security firms.

Beyond dealings with the U.S. government, U.S.-based capital has also played a crucial role in the early funding of these companies. A slew of private equity firms – the most prominent being Francisco Partners (who bought 70 percent of NSO’s shares for $130 million in 2014),60 Blackstone, Integrity Partners,61 and Finback Investment Partners (owned by  Jeb Bush, former Republican presidential candidate and brother of George W. Bush)62 – have either owned significant stake in NSO Group over the past ten years or entered advanced dealings to do so. 

Beyond A Revolving Door: Blurring the Lines Between State Violence and Private Industry 

These surveillance companies are not only contracting with state officials: they are also founded and run by state officials. Veterans of state security and foreign policy, mostly in Israel and the United States, comprise and sustain the industry. Dr. Emma L. Briant, an expert on disinformation campaigns, described the path of Israeli intelligence officials into the industry as “not a revolving door, but more like an escalator”: nonstop, linear, and with a clear end destination.63 

Tal Hanan of Team Jorge, for example, is a former special forces operative and CEO of Demoman International, a security company registered with the Israeli Ministry of Defense.64 His business partner Mashi Meidan is a veteran of the Israeli domestic intelligence service Shin Bet. Shalev Hulio, the founder of NSO Group, served as a major during his career in the IDF and recruited heavily from elite IDF intelligence units to build his team; active Israeli intelligence officials worked closely with him on Pegasus’s development. Virtually every single Israeli cyber surveillance company is founded, run, or largely composed of ex-security officials.65 They recruit other countries’ ex-state actors as well: Team Jorge worked with Roger Noriega, the former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State under George W. Bush; NSO Group paid Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security advisor, over $40,000 to join their advisory board.66 

israel 12

While the industry is littered with ex-Israeli intelligence officials, the Israeli government also has an indelible role in the development and distribution of these technologies. Having classified them as weapons, the Israeli Defense ministry must approve the export of Pegasus and similar software to other countries. By far the largest exporter of spyware, having complete control over who can obtain it gives Israel massive leverage in its national security strategy. In establishing its early relationship with NSO Group, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated this plan simply: “With our Defense Ministry sitting at the controls of how these systems move around, we will be able to exploit them and reap diplomatic profits”. 

Pegasus has certainly granted this exploitation to Israel, who has used its advantage to garner legitimacy from states which historically have supported the Palestinian cause. Its granting of Pegasus to the U.A.E. and Bahrain, for example, was a central motivator to their signing of the 2020 Abraham Accords.67 Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia, which already had access to Pegasus by that time, threatened to reverse the negotiations if Israel did not renew its Pegasus license. Panama, who historically voted critically of Israel in the U.N. General Assembly, has begun to shift its norms upon receipt of Pegasus.68 In an attempt to maintain its delicate allyship with Russia, Israel blocked Pegasus contracts for Ukraine and Estonia.69 Israel has also built a coalition through Pegasus with its allies on the reactionary right in Poland, India, and Hungary. Despite Prime Minister Beata Szydlo and the Law and Justice party’s frequent statements of Holocaust denial, Netanyahu granted Pegasus to Poland in 2016; by 2021, it was revealed that Pegasus had targeted members of the Polish opposition. India, which historically has stood with Palestine, flipped its position upon the election of the right-wing Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi in 2016 and was granted Pegasus a year later. Israel sold Pegasus to Hungary under the tenure of Viktor Orbán, who has fiercely advocated for Israel in the European Union.70 

The case of Mexico and Tomás Zerón perfectly illustrates the mutual benefits of this kind of diplomacy. Mexico historically voted against Israel in the United Nations – but under Enrique Peña Nieto, Mexico worked far more collaboratively with Israel. In 2014, Zerón purchased Pegasus for the Attorney General’s Office; in 2016, Enrique Peña Nieto traveled to Israel, the first official visit from a Mexican president since 2000. Netanyahu returned the favor in 2017, visiting Mexico City as the first-ever Israeli prime minister to do so. During these years, Mexico gradually changed its votes on Palestine-related resolutions to abstensions.

As countless examples show, the boundary between the Israeli state and its private cybersurveillance industry are virtually nonexistent. Since the Biden Administration blacklisted NSO Group in 2021, Israel has heavily critiqued the U.S. for its decision and continues to lobby for its reversal. All of Israel’s leaders, regardless of party, have fiercely defended the industry upon scrutiny, citing its centrality to Israeli foreign policy. Yigal Unna, former director general of the Israeli National Cyber Directorate, told the U.S. as much: “The people aiming their arrows against NSO are actually aiming at the blue and white flag hanging behind it”.71 Israel’s success depends on the development of advanced warfare technology, and government officials are acutely aware of that reality. 

israel 13

Palestine as Ground Zero

Israel is by far the leading exporter of cyber surveillance technology, as well as a strong exporter in the overall global arms market. Over 150 active defense companies are based in Israel, surveillance and otherwise.72 Its weapons exports comprise 2.3 percent of the global market, supplying countries around the world – including Narendra Modi’s far-right Indian government, which has consistently been Israel’s number one arms client.73

It is not a coincidence that Israel is the world leader in cyber surveillance weapons. Its founding and endurance as a state rely on its ability to surveil and suppress Palestinian resistance – and the industry has flourished as a result of Israel’s commitment to developing the technology. Israel used Pegasus to target Palestinian human rights defenders at the six NGOs it unlawfully designated as terrorist organizations in 2021.74 Even Israeli dissenters of government actions have been subject to Pegasus hacking.75 Blue Wolf, an Israeli military surveillance database, stores photos of virtually every Palestinian in the West Bank, allowing facial recognition software to inform soldiers at checkpoints about the person in front of them – including their hometown, family, occupation, and political involvement – before the individual even presents their ID.76 Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest military company, has built surveillance sensors, facial recognition technology, and surveillance towers across Israel’s apartheid barriers through the West Bank, around the Gaza strip, and on its borders with Lebanon and Syria.77 In January 2024, Israel publicly admitted to purchasing mass online influence systems to push propaganda about its genocidal campaign in Gaza, using software likely associated with Team Jorge.78

These technologies only comprise a fraction of the digital warfare Israel uses on a daily basis, offering ample training to develop its exports.79 In selling its products to other states, NSO Group advertised the value of this “hands-on” training from Israeli veterans who had expertise in using Pegasus and other phone hacking products against Palestinians.80 Companies which specialize in advanced surveillance hardware technology such as CCTV cameras, facial recognition, sensors, and more also export their products globally. Touting the success of its products against Palestinians, Elbit secured a contract with the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol to construct the exact same technology along the U.S.-Mexico border and within the Tohono O’odham reservation.81 Thousands of local police departments contract some form of digital forensic technology from private firms, over half of which are based in Israel.82 Companies have also leveraged the October 7th attacks as reinforcing the importance of their surveillance technology, with NSO Group sending a letter to the U.S. Secretary of State Blinken urging the U.S. to reverse its blacklist of the company.83 Israel’s centrality in the cybersurveillance world, then, is yet another reason why the reactionary international strengthens with each blow to the Palestinian cause. 

The Tip of the Iceberg 

Shortly after the 2021 Pegasus leak exposed 15,000 Mexican phone numbers potentially tapped for state surveillance, Tomás Zerón and the prior Peña Nieto administration faced global pressure. At the time, a Mexico City security expert voiced serious concern: “Mexico’s capacity to spy on its citizens is immense…what we know about is only the tip of the iceberg.”84 

There are countless lessons to draw from the story of Tomás Zerón, but chief among them is this dire warning: as surveillance technology exponentially improves, the power of the reactionary international – and any state, anywhere – will never be the same. Groundbreaking investigative journalism has been done to uncover the scope of this industry and the connections that underpin it, but the coverage remains minor relative to the severity of the crisis. States and corporations alike are also facing existential threats from this concentration of power, prompting attempts to contain the industry from the European Union to Apple to WhatsApp. But the legal system can only contain the global market for so long, and neither liberal governments nor corporate interests can do so in a way that protects the people. 

Progressive organizers, human rights advocates, and dissidents have even less agency to combat or contain this phenomenon. Stephanie E. Brewer, a lawyer who assisted the families of the 43 Ayotzinapa students, had her phone tapped by Pegasus while she was working on the case. Despite her continued vigilance to avoid malware, the Mexican government was still able to access her data. She expected it to happen eventually, though: “It’s just part of defending human rights in Mexico. It comes with the territory.”85 Increasingly, the progressive international will have no choice but to accept this surveillance as a constant reality – and learn tactics to organize accordingly. 

But while this deployment of surveillance technology may seem unknown, the networks through which Israel, Zerón, and other global actors weaponized it are not. Between Tomás Zerón’s strategic relationships, suppression of resistance, and selfish corruption; the venture capitalists which happily funded a burgeoning violent industry; the state interests which enabled “free market” surveillance capitalism;86 and the coordinated sabotage of the global majority’s fights for liberation, the story of Tomás Zerón is all too familiar. It reflects the fundamental nature of the reactionary international: deeply connected, well-resourced, strategic, and opaque. As progressive movements around the world seek to combat these reactionary forces, it is crucial to recall the successes of similar global movements, incorporating the power of state and private surveillance systems into a broader strategy for collective liberation.

Key Actors:

Benjamin Netanyahu

Benjamin Netanyahu

Tomás Zerón de Lucio

Tomás Zerón de Lucio

Tal Hanan

Tal Hanan

Rayzone Group

Rayzone Group

NSO Group

NSO Group

Elbit Systems

Elbit Systems


Ronen Bergman and Oscar Lopez, “Former Official Wanted by Mexico Takes Refuge in Israel,” The New York Times, July 15, 2021, sec. World
Cécile Schilis-Gallego, “Spying on Mexican Journalists: Investigating the Lucrative Market of Cyber-Surveillance,” Forbidden Stories, December 7, 2020
Mathieu Tourliere, “Tomás Zerón vive refugiado en un departamento de lujo en Tel Aviv,” Proseco, May 23, 2022
Tomer Ganon, “The Wanted Mexican That Is Hiding out at the Luxury Home of the Rayzone Group Entrepreneur,” CTech, May 18, 2022
“Pegasus Project: Apple iPhones Compromised by NSO Spyware,” Amnesty International, July 19, 2021
Phineas Rueckert, “Pegasus: The New Global Weapon for Silencing Journalists | Forbidden Stories,” Forbidden Stories, July 18, 2021
Diana Priest, Craig Timberg, and Souad Mekhennet, “Takeaways from the Pegasus Project,” The Washington Post, July 18, 2021, sec. Investigations
David Pegg and Sam Cutler, “What Is Pegasus Spyware and How Does It Hack Phones?,” The Guardian, July 18, 2021, sec. News
Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti, “The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon,” The New York Times, January 28, 2022, sec. Magazine
Nicole Perlroth, “How Spy Tech Firms Let Governments See Everything on a Smartphone,” The New York Times, September 2, 2016, sec. Technology
John Scott-Railton et al., “Bitter Sweet: Supporters of Mexico’s Soda Tax Targeted With NSO Exploit Links” (University of Toronto, February 11, 2017)
Bill Marczak and John Scott-Railton, “The Million Dollar Dissident: NSO Group’s iPhone Zero-Days Used against a UAE Human Rights Defender” (University of Toronto, August 24, 2016)
Steven Feldstein Kot Brian (Chun Hey), “Why Does the Global Spyware Industry Continue to Thrive? Trends, Explanations, and Responses” (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 14, 2023)
Cécile Andrzejewski, “"Team Jorge”: In the Heart of a Global Disinformation Machine • Forbidden Stories,” Forbidden Stories, February 15, 2023
Omer Benjakob and Gur Megiddo, “Hacking, Extortion, Election Interference: These Are the Tools Used by Israel’s Agents of Chaos and Manipulat,” Haaretz, February 15, 2023, sec. National Security & Cyber
Gur Megiddo, Omer Benjakob, and haaretz, “The Israelis Destabilizing Democracy and Disrupting Elections Worldwide,” Haaretz, sec. National Security & Cyber, accessed March 5, 2024
Nicholas Confessore, “Cambridge Analytica and Facebook: The Scandal and the Fallout So Far,” The New York Times, April 4, 2018, sec. U.S.
Megiddo, Benjakob, and haaretz, “The Israelis Destabilizing Democracy and Disrupting Elections Worldwide.”
Stephanie Kirchgaessner et al., “Dark Arts of Politics: How ‘Team Jorge’ and Cambridge Analytica Meddled in Nigerian Election,” The Guardian, February 16, 2023, sec. World news
Stephanie Kirchgaessner, “Fresh Scrutiny for Mexico after Arrest of Suspect in NSO Spyware Case,” The Guardian, November 9, 2021, sec. World news
Jean-Pierre Filiu, “Pegasus Spyware, Israel and a Massacre of Mexican Students,” Le Monde, January 23, 2023
Natalie Kitroeff and Ronen Bergman, “How Mexico Became the Biggest User of the World’s Most Notorious Spy Tool,” The New York Times, April 18, 2023, sec. World
Suhail Gharaibeh, “Israel, Cybersurveillance, and the Case of the Ayotzinapa 43,” NACLA, September 14, 2022
Schilis-Gallego, “Spying on Mexican Journalists.”
John Scott-Railton et al., “Reckless Exploit: Mexican Journalists, Lawyers, and a Child Targeted with NSO Spyware” (University of Toronto, June 19, 2017)
Rueckert, “Pegasus.”
Schilis-Gallego, “Spying on Mexican Journalists.”
Tourliere, “Tomás Zerón vive refugiado en un departamento de lujo en Tel Aviv.”
"Mexico: Treated with Indolence: The State’s Response to Disappearances in Mexico” (Amnesty International), accessed March 5, 2024
Kirk Semple and Paulina Villegas, “Top Investigator in Case of Missing Students in Mexico Resigns,” The New York Times, September 15, 2016, sec. World
Azam Ahmed and Nicole Perlroth, “Using Texts as Lures, Government Spyware Targets Mexican Journalists and Their Families,” The New York Times, June 19, 2017, sec. World
Scott-Railton et al., “Reckless Exploit.”
Ahmed and Perlroth, “Using Texts as Lures, Government Spyware Targets Mexican Journalists and Their Families.”
Azam Ahmed, “Spyware in Mexico Targeted Investigators Seeking Students,” The New York Times, July 10, 2017, sec. World
Bergman and Lopez, “Former Official Wanted by Mexico Takes Refuge in Israel.”
“México inicia con Canadá proceso de extradición de Tomás Zerón,” El Universal, July 10, 2020
“‘Team Jorge’: los bots de Tomás Zerón para defenderse de AMLO,” IMER Noticias (blog), February 17, 2023
Andrzejewski, “"Team Jorge”.”
Damien Leloup and Florian Reynaud, “Billionaires, Whistleblowers, Criminals, Political Opponents: The Targets of the Disinformation Factory,” Le Monde, February 15, 2023
Kitroeff and Bergman, “How Mexico Became the Biggest User of the World’s Most Notorious Spy Tool.”
Karine Pfenniger, “Pegasus Project: What Has Happened since the Revelations?,” Forbidden Stories, July 17, 2023
Tourliere, “Tomás Zerón vive refugiado en un departamento de lujo en Tel Aviv.”
Joseph Cox, “The DEA Met With Controversial iPhone Hackers NSO Group,” Vice, August 2, 2017
Mark Mazzetti and Ronen Bergman, “Internal Documents Show How Close the F.B.I. Came to Deploying Spyware,” The New York Times, November 12, 2022, sec. U.S.
Oded Yaron, “What Did the FBI Really Want NSO’s Pegasus for?,” Haaretz, February 6, 2022, sec. Tech News
David E. Sanger et al., “U.S. Blacklists Israeli Firm NSO Group Over Spyware,” The New York Times, November 3, 2021, sec. Business
Reuters, “Microsoft Says Israeli Group Sold Tools to Hack Windows,” Haaretz, July 15, 2021, sec. Tech News
Mark Mazzetti and Ronen Bergman, “A Front Company and a Fake Identity: How the U.S. Came to Use Spyware It Was Trying to Kill.,” The New York Times, April 2, 2023, sec. U.S.
Mazzetti and Bergman, “Internal Documents Show How Close the F.B.I. Came to Deploying Spyware.”
Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman, and Matina Stevis-Gridneff, “How the Global Spyware Industry Spiraled Out of Control,” The New York Times, December 8, 2022, sec. U.S.
Kot, “Why Does the Global Spyware Industry Continue to Thrive?”
Simone Wilson, “LAPD Scopes out Israeli Drones, ‘Big Data’ Solutions,” Jewish Journal, February 13, 2014
Joey Scott, “LAPD Is Using Israeli Surveillance Software to Track You,” Knock LA, November 28, 2023
Sam Biddle Devereaux Ryan, “Texas State Police Purchased Israeli Phone-Tracking Software for ‘Border Emergency,’” The Intercept, July 26, 2023
Jackie Gilbert, “DHS Awards 5-Year Contract to Cobwebs for Intelligence and Analysis Software Interface Tool,” G2 Xchange (blog), August 27, 2020
Will Parrish, “The U.S. Border Patrol and an Israeli Military Contractor Are Putting a Native American Reservation Under ‘Persistent Surveillance,’” The Intercept, August 25, 2019
Joseph Cox, “NSO Group Pitched Phone Hacking Tech to American Police,” Vice (blog), May 12, 2020
Joseph Cox, “NSO Group Gave Pegasus Spyware Demo to the NYPD,” Vice, February 8, 2022
“Where Do Many Police Departments Train? In Israel” (Amnesty International, August 25, 2016)
Ryan Gallagher, “Silicon Valley Investment Firm Profits From Surveillance States,” Bloomberg.Com, January 26, 2021
Steven Scheer, “Israel’s NSO Group Says in Talks with U.S. Funds over Possible Deal,” Reuters, January 26, 2022, sec. Middle East
Mehul Srivastava and Kaye Wiggins, “Jeb Bush’s Private Equity Group Held Talks over Selling NSO Technology in US,” May 2, 2023
JG Michael, “Team Jorge: The Israeli Private Contractors Involved in Global Election Meddling,” Parallax Views, n.d.
Andrzejewski, “"Team Jorge”.”
Michael, “Team Jorge: The Israeli Private Contractors Involved in Global Election Meddling.”
Ahmed and Perlroth, “Using Texts as Lures, Government Spyware Targets Mexican Journalists and Their Families.”
Bergman and Mazzetti, “The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon.”
Bergman and Mazzetti.
Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti, “Israel, Fearing Russian Reaction, Blocked Spyware for Ukraine and Estonia,” The New York Times, March 23, 2022, sec. U.S.
Bergman and Mazzetti, “The Battle for the World’s Most Powerful Cyberweapon.”
Bergman and Mazzetti.
Kot, “Why Does the Global Spyware Industry Continue to Thrive?”
Krishn Kaushik, “Israel’s Military Exports to Top Buyer India Unaffected by Gaza War,” Reuters, February 23, 2024, sec. Aerospace & Defense
“Devices of Palestinian Human Rights Defenders Hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus Spyware,” November 8, 2021
Tomer Ganon, “No One Was Immune: Israel Police Pegasus Surveillance List Revealed,” CTECH - Www.Calcalistech.Com, February 7, 2022
Elizabeth Dwoskin, “Israel Escalates Surveillance of Palestinians with Facial Recognition Program in West Bank,” Washington Post, November 8, 2021
Reuters, “Elbit Systems Wins Deal to Build Jerusalem Electronic Fence,” Haaretz, September 18, 2002
Omer Benjakob, “Israel Has Bought a Mass Online Influence System to Counter Antisemitism, Hamas Atrocity Denial,” Haaretz, January 16, 2024, sec. National Security & Cyber
Frankie Vetch, “Israel Uses Palestine as a Petri Dish to Test Spyware,” Coda Story (blog), June 22, 2023
Amjad Iraqi, “‘We Violated People’s Privacy for a Living’: How Israel’s Cyber Army Went Corporate,” +972 Magazine, November 23, 2021
Parrish, “The U.S. Border Patrol and an Israeli Military Contractor Are Putting a Native American Reservation Under ‘Persistent Surveillance.’”
Kot, “Why Does the Global Spyware Industry Continue to Thrive?”
Georgia Gee, “Israeli Spyware Firm NSO Demands ‘Urgent’ Meeting With Blinken Amid Gaza War Lobbying Effort,” The Intercept, November 10, 2023
Nina Lakhani, “Fifty People Linked to Mexico’s President among Potential Targets of NSO Clients,” The Guardian, July 19, 2021, sec. News
Ahmed and Perlroth, “Using Texts as Lures, Government Spyware Targets Mexican Journalists and Their Families.”
Shoshana Zuboff, “Surveillance Capitalism and the Challenge of Collective Action,” New Labor Forum 28, no. 1 (January 1, 2019): 10–29