Middle East Monitor / November 28, 2021
This week it emerged that Silicon Valley giant Apple is suing Israeli spyware maker NSO Group.
The creators of the iPad, the iMac, the iPhone and so many other iconic computer products announced that they had filed the suit so as to hold NSO “accountable for the surveillance and targeting of Apple users.”
I have covered the issue of NSO and its spyware Pegasus before in this column.
Pegasus is a powerful piece of software used to hack into smartphones. The phones are then effectively turned into weapons against their own users, after being totally hijacked. The phone can be operated remotely and all its contents stolen, even the camera and microphone being switched on at will.
NSO has sold this lucrative hacking service for millions of dollars to some of the world’s most oppressive regimes, including Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
While NSO’s PR department claims that its services are only used to combat crime and “terrorism,” experts have time and time again detected Pegasus on the phones of journalists, dissidents, human rights activists and even politicians.
Apple is not the first US corporation to sue NSO. WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook (now rebranded as Meta) in 2019 launched a lawsuit against NSO. Several other major Silicon Valley companies have backed the suit.
It emerged in this summer that NSO’s software was likely used to target mainstream journalists and establishment politicians in Europe, including French President Emmanuel Macron. He was among 14 world leaders included in the leaked list of numbers “of interest” to NSO Group clients.
The cumulative effect of all these revelations has now had a significant and concrete consequence. The US government earlier this month blacklisted NSO and one other Israeli cyber-mercenary company, Candiru. The two have carried out projects which aim “to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers,” the US Department of Commerce said.
This means that NSO will no longer be able to buy products and services from US companies. Apple is also seeking in its new lawsuit to ban NSO from ever using its products again.
To pile further woe on top of NSO’s head, the credit rating Moody’s this week downgraded the Israeli firm’s credit rating, and announced that the company is at risk of defaulting on half-a-billion dollars’ worth of loans.
“The company has a relatively low share of recurring revenues and is, unlike many other software companies, highly dependent on new license sales which we believe can become increasingly difficult given the actions taken against NSO,” Moody’s said.
In other words, the new US sanction imposed against NSO means that the company is now finding it hard to secure new clients or raise new funding (and all the negative publicity resulting from journalistic exposure of its nefarious practices can’t exactly be helping either).
Could we finally be seeing the beginning of the end for NSO Group and its cybercrime racket? That’s by no means yet certain. But it’s certainly possible.
While the permanent closure of NSO Group would be a welcome development, there is a far wider problem here. NSO is only one of many such cyber-crime outfits which have the Israeli government’s official stamp of approval.
The software and services NSO develops are rightly classified as cyber weaponry, and they are officially licenced for export by the Israeli government itself.
It’s unknown just how many such mercenary Israeli spying and cybercrime companies there are, but those we know about are highly likely to be the tip of the iceberg. The fact I’d never even heard of Candiru before the US government blacklisted it alongside NSO this month is testament to that.
There is a whole raft of these criminal entities which are pushed by Israel, such as Black Cube, the Israel mercenary “intelligence” firm perhaps most notable for being hired by disgraced Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein to spy on his rape and sexual assault victims in an attempt to intimidate them from testifying against him.
After his conviction, Weinstein was thankfully sent to jail.
When will NSO and Black Cube executives be sent to jail? Unfortunately, we could be waiting a long time for that.
Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist living in London who writes about Palestine and the Middle East