Israel’s e-warfare: using smartphones to kill the Lebanese resistance

Jamal Meselmani, The Cradle, March 4, 2024 —

Israel’s military penetrates everyday Lebanese smartphones and neighborhood security cameras as part of a formidable surveillance and espionage mission to kill Hezbollah fighters and their families.

Recently, there has been a flurry of reports detailing Israel’s capabilities in surveillance and tracking of mobile devices in connection to Tel Aviv’s military aggression against southern Lebanon.

These covert operations, which often involve targeted assassinations by drones or warplanes, were executed by exploiting the presence of mobile phones – both smartphones and regular devices – among Lebanese resistance fighters while engaged in cross-border operations in support of the Palestinian resistance the day after Al-Aqsa Flood was launched.

Israeli intelligence uses the data from these devices, including GPS-enabled smartwatches, to pinpoint the locations of targets and to track fighters’ movements.

Additionally, there have been reports about Israel exploiting the devices owned by friends and families of resistance fighters, who may not be fully aware of the risks posed by their technology usage. This lack of awareness opens up avenues for Israeli intelligence to gather information through electronic means, such as smart TVs connected to the internet or other electronic devices that transmit data.

This vulnerability was recognized by Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah, who in a speech on 13 February urged his partisans in the south to “throw” away smartphones, which he described as “spy device[s].”

Surveillance tactics and deception strategies

Israel is known to employ a range of tactics, including the creation of fake online personas, to gather personal and metadata about the fighters. This information, combined with advanced technological systems and artificial intelligence, aids in identifying and targeting individuals.

To counteract Israeli surveillance, the Lebanese resistance has been active in dismantling radar and spy systems deployed by the Israeli military along the Lebanese–Palestinian border throughout its engagement in the region-wide war.

However, in response, Israel has turned to utilizing cameras placed in homes, neighborhoods, and streets, often by penetrating existing surveillance networks. In an effort to thwart these tactics, Hezbollah has urged residents of border towns in southern Lebanon to disable surveillance cameras in their homes and shops.

This is in addition to the suspicious calls from individuals claiming to represent official or private associations and institutions, seeking information about family members, or inquiring about specific individuals affiliated with the resistance. Several homes have faced Israeli shelling following such calls, according to sources from Alhurra (AFP).

The prowess of Israel’s electronic and technological arsenal is widely acknowledged, positioning it as one of the global leaders in the espionage technology industry. The occupation state’s 8200 intelligence unit, often likened to global technological intelligence agencies, has cemented Tel Aviv’s position in the digital espionage and surveillance community.

Over the past few years, international leaks and spyware scandals have revealed the existence of highly capable Israeli espionage systems, ranging from open-source intelligence (OSINT) to human intelligence (HUMINT), all seamlessly integrated with cutting-edge artificial intelligence.

Unleashing Pegasus 

Among the most notorious electronic espionage programs is “Pegasus,” aptly named the “winged horse” of surveillance. Human Rights Watch’s detailed report in early 2022 shed light on the program’s extensive privacy breaches, revealing its illicit and secretive installation on smartphones:

The software is surreptitiously introduced on people’s mobile phones. Once Pegasus is on the device, the client is able to turn it into a powerful surveillance tool by gaining complete access to its camera, calls, media, microphone, email, text messages, and other functions, enabling surveillance of the person targeted and their contacts.

The “Zero Click” exploit, so called because it doesn’t require any action by the owner to compromise the device, “is an advanced and sophisticated attack technique that is effective at compromising devices, while also being very difficult for the target to detect or prevent.”

Of particular concern is Pegasus’ ability to eavesdrop on WhatsApp calls, exploiting users’ assumption of absolute security. Once the spyware is downloaded to the device, the “operating hacker” can turn it into a comprehensive monitoring tool, obtaining full access to its contents through the camera, photos, videos, microphone, emails, text messages, and even encrypted materials.

Lebanon has been implicated in such surveillance efforts, as highlighted by Citizen Lab’s report identifying it as one of the 45 countries susceptible to Pegasus operations.

If Israel can exploit smart cameras in southern Lebanon by penetrating them through the internet, hacking mobile phones seems well within its capabilities, as demonstrated by its hacking of French President Emmanuel Macron’s device and those of other high-profile global elites, journalists, and human rights activists.

Data-driven battlefield

The modern battlefield extends far beyond conventional warfare, delving into the realm of data and information acquisition, particularly from electronic and technological sources. This clandestine aspect of warfare is pivotal in shaping strategic and tactical decisions for military and political leaders alike, providing crucial insights into adversaries’ strengths, weaknesses, and objectives.

Every tidbit of information, no matter how seemingly insignificant, contributes to the formation of a bank of targets, aiding in the elimination of the opponent’s human and military pillars, resources, and other strategic assets.

As with most facets of contemporary society, the utilization of artificial intelligence (AI) in espionage has had a transformative impact and revolutionized the speed and accuracy of target identification and tracking.

Cutting-edge AI algorithms sift through vast amounts of data generated by electromagnetic signals, social media platforms, and electronic devices, enabling rapid analysis and decision-making. Israel’s intelligence agencies, such as the Shin Bet, have embraced AI technology to counter significant threats and enhance their operational capabilities.

Getting with the program 

Yet, with technological advancements come increased cybersecurity risks. Reports indicate a surge in hacking and espionage attacks, particularly in West Asia. Kaspersky, a leading cybersecurity company, found that “the percentage of users attacked by spyware in the Middle East (West Asia) increased by 11.8 percent at the beginning of 2023.”

Given the widespread cybersecurity threats facing Lebanon’s “digital sovereignty,” the absence of national cybersecurity strategies and awareness campaigns regarding Israeli violations of the cellular and terrestrial phone network poses a significant concern.

To safeguard against potential electronic surveillance by the occupation state, whether directly or under the guise of various entities, it is in the national interest of Lebanese citizens, particularly those in the south, to exercise caution and vigilance.

Southerners should also be mindful of using non-smart cell phones, colloquially known as “Abu Lumba” in Lebanon, as they pose similar risks to smartphones due to their ease of location tracking.

These devices can be easily located and may contain integrated GPS technology or smart SIM cards, potentially jeopardizing personal safety and inadvertently aiding intelligence collection efforts targeting individuals associated with the resistance.

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