Israel to lobby against US sanctions on NSO citing national security: Report

NSO CEO Shalev Hulio in IDF uniform (File)

MEE Staff

Middle East Eye  /  November 10, 2021

Spyware firms NSO and Candiru are crucial to Israel’s national security, two officials tell The New York Times.

Israel is planning to campaign against US sanctions levelled against spyware firms NSO and Candiru by claiming they are vital to its national security and foreign policy, two senior Israeli officials told The New York Times.

NSO has sparked outrage from rights groups, technology companies and US lawmakers after an investigation by international media outlets earlier this year revealed its Pegasus spyware was used by security forces and authoritarian governments in several countries, including Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The investigation found thousands of phone numbers may have been compromised by Pegasus, which gives hackers access to a phone’s content as well as the ability to stealthily activate its camera and microphone.

Potential targets included journalists, human rights defenders and government officials.

Last week, the US government’s Department of Commerce sanctioned NSO Group and Candiru “based on evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers”.

“[The] action is a part of the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to put human rights at the centre of US foreign policy, including by working to stem the proliferation of digital tools used for repression,” the department said in a statement.

Two senior Israeli officials told The New York Times that the Israeli government considered the software a crucial component of its foreign policy, and was lobbying Washington to remove the company from the blacklist.

The officials added that if the US were accusing NSO of acting against its interests, then it was implicitly accusing Israel of doing the same.

On Monday, an investigation by international groups found that software was also used against Palestinian activists involved in the six civil organizations recently outlawed by Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz.

According to the report, three of the people whose phones were hacked with the software were members of civil society groups that were blacklisted by Gantz for alleged terrorist ties.

The phones were examined by Citizen Lab, Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders, the latter of which led the investigation.

Also on Monday, a US federal appeals court ruled the WhatsApp messaging service could move forward with a lawsuit against the NSO Group, rejecting NSO’s claim of foreign sovereign immunity in the court case.

Facebook, which recently changed the name of its parent company to Meta, and which owns WhatsApp, first sued the NSO Group in 2019 over the alleged targeting of its servers in California with malware to infect approximately 1,400 “target devices” with malicious spyware that could be used to steal WhatsApp users’ information.

In its legal filing, WhatsApp accused the Israeli firm of violating its terms and services, as well as US state and federal law.