What To Know About The Spying Scandal Linked To Israeli Tech Firm NSO

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The logo of NSO Group displayed on a building where the Israeli cybersecurity company previously had offices, in Herzliya, Israel, in 2016.

Daniella Cheslow/AP

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Daniella Cheslow/AP

A Tech Firm Has Blocked Some Governments From Using Its Spyware Over Misuse Claims

Israeli defense officials announced an investigation and visited NSO’s headquarters north of Tel Aviv, then briefed the French defense minister on its efforts. The company told NPR it temporarily suspended some governments’ access to its software, declining to name the countries, as it looked into potential abuse. Multiple Israeli news outlets questioned NSO executives as the investigative reports were published last month.

«You didn’t know about the software’s very wide use against dozens of journalists in dozens of countries, to know what they are doing?» said anchor Ilana Dayan on Israeli Army Radio on July 22. «You didn’t know that the ruler of Dubai used Pegasus to track his daughter and wife? … You also didn’t know that your software was installed in the phone of the fiancée of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by representatives of the regime in Riyadh? All that you didn’t know?»

Those questions, critics of Israel’s cyber-surveillance industry say, have largely elicited a collective shrug in a country whose economy, security and foreign relations lean heavily on the murky world of cyber espionage and arms exports. NSO has framed the reporting as an anti-Israel campaign, and a company employee argued it is the unpleasant reality that all governments spy.

«Intelligence is a f***ing s****y business,» the employee told NPR, speaking on condition of anonymity because company policy states that NSO «will no longer be responding to media inquiries on this matter and it will not play along with the vicious and slanderous campaign.»

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French President Emmanuel Macron speaks on his mobile phone during a meeting at a European Union summit in Brussels in July 2020. French newspaper Le Monde reported last month that the cellphones of Macron and other French officials in 2019 may have been among potential surveillance targets by NSO spyware.

John Thys/Pool photo via AP

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John Thys/Pool photo via AP

The Two-Way
President Obama Proposes Reforms To Surveillance Programs

Obama Calls Secret Monitoring Programs Legal, Limited

Obama Calls Secret Monitoring Programs Legal, Limited




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«NSO commercial interests and Israel’s security and international interests were kind of blurred together,» says Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, a researcher at the independent Israel Democracy Institute. «What’s bothering me is the fact that all this has been done very far from the public eye of the Israeli public.»

In addition to the Defense Ministry investigation, a parliamentary committee said it would consider tighter export controls. Those reviews are taking place behind closed doors.

«Extraordinary audacity and contempt for human rights»

This month, a group of United Nations human rights experts called for a global moratorium on sales of surveillance technology, and demanded answers from NSO and Israel.

«Given the extraordinary audacity and contempt for human rights that such widespread surveillance shows, if the denial of collusion by the NSO Group is to have any credibility at all, the company must disclose whether or not it ever conducted any meaningful human rights due diligence,» the experts said. «We also urge Israel, as the NSO Group’s home country, to disclose fully what measures it took to review NSO export transactions in light of its own human rights obligations.»

Cyberspying isn’t just an Israeli phenomenon, and democracies should lay out global rules for regulating it, said David Kaye, former U.N. special rapporteur on freedom of opinion and expression. «It’s possible that Israel could be part of the solution to the global problem of the spread of spyware,» Kaye told NPR. «But because of its integration into government already, it may make it harder for Israel to move forward on this.»

Tech companies against NSO

The most visible pressure against NSO is coming from the tech world. Amazon Web Services told Amnesty International, a partner of the Pegasus Project, it shut down NSO accounts. Before the latest revelations, Facebook-owned messaging app WhatsApp sued NSO for allegedly exploiting the app to infiltrate cellphones, with Google and Microsoft supporting the lawsuit.

Even some Israeli techies are speaking out. From the main stage at the cybersecurity conference in Tel Aviv, Israeli cybersecurity veteran Iftach Ian Amit — formerly hired by companies to hack into their systems, now dedicated to defending them — called on tech companies not to hire former employees of companies like NSO. Though that’s been his own practice for years, it was the first time he made it a public call.

«Have a statement that says, ‘I’m not going to work with anyone who ever operated in those shady industries.’ It’s going to cause a very simple supply chain effect. People wouldn’t want to work there because they would know this is their last job in the industry,» Amit said in a closing keynote address to the audience on July 21, the same day the Israeli prime minister addressed the conference.

In an interview with NPR, Amit said only a few tech leaders in Israel have joined his pledge. «There’s an attempt to harp on the patriotic side of things,» he said. «It’s us versus them. So, you know, if you’re not supporting us, you’re against, you’re anti-Israeli, which is preposterous, of course.»

His own tipping point came 10 years ago when a Latin American government agency approached his former company. It revealed a real-world application of NSO’s technology spying on a government official’s phone, and asked him to develop a similar product. He quit the company soon after, but he believes many other Israeli spyware businesses, not just NSO, supply questionable regimes.

«I am 100% certain that they do have legitimate customers, that they do have work that ends up with putting the right people behind bars and finding them,» Amit said. «But I think that there’s been a tipping point where greed kind of took over and it was just unscrupulous. You’re doing more harm, I think, than good.»

Amit knows some former employees of NSO. They’ll go out for drinks together. But he says they know he’ll never agree to do business with them.

  • Pegasus Project
  • Pegasus
  • NSO
  • cyber security
  • cyber espionage
  • spyware
  • Israel


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