The Independent / July 20, 2021
As concerns about NSO’s Pegasus spyware grow, the tech firm’s close relationship with Israel’s defence infrastructure is coming under increasing scrutiny.
The Israeli defence ministry is facing mounting pressure to revoke export licences of cyber company NSO and to distance it from the country’s security establishment, after a new probe alleged that NSO spyware Pegasus has been “systematically” used to commit human rights violations.
It comes amid separate concerns of a “revolving door” policy between NSO, other Israeli security export companies and senior retired Israeli military and defence personnel who are often hired in leading roles.
An investigation dubbed the Pegasus Project, led by Amnesty International and the Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories, as well as more than a dozen media organizations, claims to have identified over 1,000 “people of interest” across 50 countries who may have been the target of Pegasus on behalf of countries including authoritarian regimes.
In total, the leaked data lists some 50,000 phone numbers that the investigation suggests may have been selected for the target of the spyware, which can be used to record calls, copy and send messages or even film people via phone cameras.
NSO, which has launched its own investigations, denied the allegations, saying that Pegasus was designed to track down criminals and terrorists, and its customers, which are governments, are heavily vetted.
But rights defenders and Israeli politicians are increasingly concerned about the misuse of such a powerful tool and are piling pressure on Israel’s defence ministry to investigate or halt the export licences that NSO needs to sell to its clients.
Some have also expressed concern at the close links between NSO and the military and security establishment in Israel because of high-profile hires.
The growing concerns about Pegasus have started to ripple internationally. Amazon confirmed that it had cut some of its ties to the Israeli surveillance company. The Guardian reported that Apple’s stock price dipped amid concerns about the privacy and security of its handsets.
Israeli defence ministry officials did not respond to queries from the Independent about whether they would launch investigations into NSO’s export licences in light of the new report. They also ignored a request for comment about concerns about the number of former defence or military personnel and officials who work in companies such as NSO.
A defence ministry spokesperson told the Independent on Monday that the export of cyber products, such as spyware sold by NSO, was for lawful use and with the sole purpose of fighting crime and countering terrorism.
“In cases where exported items are used in violation of export licences or end-use certificates, appropriate measures are taken,” a statement read.
Speaking to the Independent, an NSO employee dismissed the report of 50,000 phone numbers as “false” and “flimsy”, saying that Pegasus has never been licensed for so many numbers. However, the source admitted that they were investigating whether the spyware had been deployed to hack 37 phone numbers that the Pegasus Project had particularly highlighted.
“We sell [Pegasus] to 45 carefully vetted government entities. We are not selling to any government. There are 90 countries (90 governments) that we have refused to do business with,” the source added.
“Human rights are more important to us than money. We shut down five customers in the last few years and we will continue to do so if people do not use this product to save lives,” the source added.
They particularly denied the link between Pegasus and the family of slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi but would not confirm or deny whether both the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were clients.
“Even though NSO is organized as a private company, they are the long arm of the Israeli government and ministry of defence”
Eitay Mack, Israeli human rights lawyer
NSO, a company of around 750 employees, also dismissed concerns about the high-profile appointments of ex-defence and military officials, saying: “Most of the employees are very young, aged between 21 and 28. There are not many generals.”
But the source did confirm five current or previous figures that work with or for NSO, including the Israeli former military’s chief censor, Brig Gen Ariella Ben-Avraham, who is global communications executive, and former defence minister bureau chief, Sharon Shalom, who works as a consultant to the business.
Oded Hershkovitz, who heads an external public relations company that represents NSO, was previously a spokesperson for the Israeli military. Buki Carmeli, a former director general of the Israeli Cyber Authority, is an operational advisor for the company’s IT department.
The company’s co-founder Shalev Hulio was a major in the Israeli army search-and-rescue unit where, according to the company’s own website, he continues to serve in the army reserve.
Gil Naveh, head of media and communications for Amnesty International Israel, expressed concern about the potential conflict of interest that these close ties posed. Naveh said the problem extends to all of the security exports industry in Israel, adding that they are “practically a golden parachute for many senior military officers”.
“It’s not just a revolving door, it’s a merry-go-around,” he added.
Prominent Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack, who has filed two petitions to Israeli courts to have NSO’s export licences halted, echoed Amnesty’s concerns. He has also worked on trying to toughen Israel’s legislation, in particular placing stronger limitations on movement between the military and security sectors and the private sectors.
“Even though NSO is organized as a private company, they are the long arm of the Israeli government and ministry of defence,” Mack told the Independent.
“They are working with export licences according to the policy of the government… They have the 100 per cent support of the Israeli authorities. They are also appointing senior security personnel. It is a revolving door.”
Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty’s tech, said NSO must immediately stop selling its equipment to governments with a track record of abusing human rights and said Israel’s defence ministry must also revoke the security export licences of the spyware company.
“These findings show that the surveillance industry is out of control,” she added.
The revelations have also worried members of parliament in Israel.
Health minister Nitzan Horowitz, head of the liberal Meretz party and a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s decision-making security cabinet, told reporters that he would meet the Israeli defence minister, Benny Gantz, on Thursday to discuss the exports by NSO Group.
Speaking during a televised meeting, lawmaker Mossi Raz called on the party to demand that Israel halt NSO exports, which he likened to “exporting weaponry, which is forbidden to non-democratic countries”.
But another Meretz lawmaker, former Israeli military deputy chief Yair Golan, said the reporting on NSO “looks tendentious, with a commercial motivation”, adding: “It is not just NSO that does such things.”
NSO employees, for their part, said that they felt targeted by rights groups and the media, adding that the campaigns felt “orchestrated”.
“There are many companies doing this, but we are getting all the heat, all the time,” the sources said.
“All the petitions to the Supreme Court were struck off. The ministry of defence checks very deeply everything that relates to human rights and corruption.”
Bel Trew – Middle East Correspondent