Montreal museum’s exhibit on Israeli-made Pegasus spyware is criticized by HonestReporting Canada

Forensic Architecture (CNW Group/Musée d'art contemporain de Montréal)

An exhibition about a controversial Israeli manufacturer of cyber-surveillance technology at one of Montreal’s leading art museums is being criticized for spreading biased and unfounded claims about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.

Terror Contagion, which opened at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) last month, is an indictment of the NSO Group whose Pegasus malware has been sold to repressive governments that allegedly have used it to hack the mobile phones of human rights activists, journalists and other political opponents, gaining access surreptitiously to everything on the devices.

The abuses of Pegasus have been the subject of extensive research by the cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto.  An international media consortium last year exposed hundreds of instances of such targeting of individuals, often leading to unjustified arrest or physical harm.

In November the U.S. Commerce Department blacklisted the NSO Group. The company has defended itself, saying it rigorously vets potential clients and only does business with legitimate law enforcement agencies that have warrants to use the technology to fight terrorism or major crime.

Terror Contagion was co-produced by MAC and Forensic Architecture (FA), a University of London-based multidisciplinary group that researches state-sanctioned violations of rights, and is supported by Amnesty International and Citizen Lab.

The exhibition grew out of FA’s ongoing research project entitled “Digital Violence: How the NSO Group Enables State Terror.” The centerpiece is a graphic representation of what is described as “the most complete database of Pegasus usage worldwide” that maps over 1,000 points of “infection” and their consequences since 2015.

Mike Fegelman, director of HonestReporting Canada, an Israel advocacy group, is disturbed by comments made by FA founder and director, the Israeli-born Eyal Weizman.

In publicity for the exhibition, which continues until April 18, and at an in-person opening conference, which can be viewed on MAC’s website, Weizman charged that Israel’s private technology sector and military are closely intertwined, and that none of its products is sold abroad without a license from the defense ministry.

Fegelman objects to Weizman’s “baseless and morally repugnant” claim that new surveillance technology such as NSO manufactures is developed and tested on Palestinian civilians, using the territories as a “laboratory.”

Said Weizman: “NSO emerged as a central player in Israel’s ecosystem of surveillance groups, developed and tested (technology) in the context of Israeli domination of Palestinians and exported it to repressive governments around the world.

“When surveillance seeks to intimidate and break one’s network of professional connections, confronting NSO could be achieved by building solidarity among the targeted, between Palestinian and Indian human right activists, Mexican and Saudi journalists, Emirati and Rwandan dissidents.”

FA’s anti-Israel slant, according to Fegelman, is also evident in a video shown at the exhibition that refers to “the extrajudicial execution” of a Palestinian man, who it claims was innocent. Ahmad Erekat was shot by Israeli forces after his car crashed into a West Bank checkpoint in June 2020, an action Israel said was necessary to prevent a suspected terrorist attack.

 FA, which has an office in Ramallah, researched the incident with Al-Haq, which it describes as the oldest Palestinian human rights organization and the Israeli government recently designated as a terrorist group.

Fegelman describes Weizman as having “close ties to multiple radical left-wing organizations operating in Israel,” and points out that in February 2020 he was denied entry to the U.S. According to reports, Weizman was prevented from attending the opening of another FA exhibition at Miami’s Museum of Art and Design for unclear security reasons.

On the other hand, Weizman was made a Member of the Order of the British Empire later that year for his “services to architecture.”

MAC director and chief curator John Zeppetelli, who said Terror Contagion was two years in the making, defends the “thought-provoking” exhibition as “exploring the frontiers of art, activism, architecture, digital technology and investigative journalism.”

In a statement, he said, “In an age of surveillance and ‘post-truth’, FA forges new politics and poetics of evidence gathering and truth production, resulting in a significant contribution to legal and esthetic discourse helping us to re-imagine what an engaged political art could look like.”

Terror Contagion is at MAC’s temporary location in Place Ville-Marie, while its building adjacent to Place des Arts is renovated. The more than 50-year-old museum, a provincially-owned corporation, is funded by the Quebec Ministry of Culture and Communications, with additional support from the federal government and Canada Council for the Arts.

Another exhibition highlight is a short film by American filmmaker and journalist Laura Poitras, an FA collaborator, who won an Academy Award for her 2014 documentary on Edward Snowden, who was charged with leaking classified material revealing the extent of U.S. global surveillance. Snowden, who found asylum in Russia, narrates videos of testimonials by alleged victims of NSO spyware also on view.

In March, MAC plans an international panel discussion on NSO, under its annual Max and Iris Stern Symposium.