How Israel uses NSO spyware as a diplomatic business card


At the height of the coronavirus pandemic, Naftali Bennett, then Israel’s Minister of Defense, proposed an idea to help control the spread of the disease: let the military spyware maker NSO track every move of his compatriots.

Advice from the man now Prime Minister of Israel Did not pass the collection.But it shows the close relationship of this Israeli company being attacked for selling a rights activity Military-grade monitoring software The authoritarian regime has the highest echelon of the country.

NSO’s Pegasus software requires government permission to export because it is considered a weapon and has become an important part of Israel’s diplomatic outreach in recent years-this role has become the focus after this weekend Enlightenment from a newspaper consortium It has been traced to the cell phones of 37 journalists, lawyers and political activists. The software secretly turns the mobile phone into an eavesdropping device while uncovering the encrypted content.

“Starting in the 1950s, Israel used its arms sales for diplomatic gains, and the only thing that changed was the name of the country,” said Israeli human rights lawyer Aitemike, who has been trying to cancel the export license of the National Bureau of Statistics for years. “The question is whether there will be some changes in the export policy.”

The legal team that held a hearing last year in the Tel Aviv District Court on Amnesty International’s petition for Israel to revoke the export license of the National Bureau of Statistics © Corinna Kern/Reuters

Although the news media’s recent leaks of Pegasus have caused international outrage, Israeli criticism has not been affected. The former deputy military chief and legislator Yair Golan expressed support for the National Bureau of Statistics in a televised speech, and the report “seems to be commercially motivated.” “It’s not just the National Bureau of Statistics that is doing these things.”

The Ministry of Defense, which must approve every license for the export of weapons, said it will “take appropriate measures” if it proves any violation of the export license.

NSO co-founder and CEO Shalev Hulio denied the consortium’s findings, which stated that NSO’s spyware is often used by members of civil society, opposition leaders, and people unrelated to terrorism or crime.

“We very bluntly claim that these are not Pegasus targets, nor are they selected as Pegasus targets, nor are they potential Pegasus targets. This has nothing to do with us or any customer of NSO technology,” he told the Financial Times, and Vow to shut down any client system that has been proven to infect the devices of journalists or members of civil society.

NSO has stated in the past that it cannot access its customers’ goals. Hulio stated that the company has asked each customer individually to reach this conclusion.

“The toy everyone wants”

In recent years, Israel has sought to improve bilateral relations from Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia, and through secret security cooperation against common enemies in regions ranging from the Muslim Brotherhood to Iran.

As countries get closer and closer, organizations such as Amnesty International and Citizens Lab tracked Pegasus’s intrusion into the phone calls of journalists, dissidents, and activists throughout the region.

“It’s like a toy that every intelligence officer wants,” said a person involved in promoting NSO products in the Gulf region. “They like the presentation, they like it comes from Israel.”

Similarly, because former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aligns with right-wing leaders, critics of the governments of Hungary, India, and Rwanda have also documented the Pegasus attack.

For years, Israel has ignored the United Nations rapporteur on freedom of speech and others’ calls for a moratorium on spyware sales and stricter oversight.

The CEO of NSO refuted any claims that the company’s products were being used abroad by Israel.

“We are not a diplomatic tool of the Israeli government; we are a commercial company, and our shareholders are British private equity,” Hulio said of Novalpina Capital. “These allegations are just theory.”

“The government is eager to help them”

Those who oppose NSO’s influence in Israel say that the company has strong support from Israeli law and politics.

An Israeli judge issued a ban on Mexican human rights activists in order to secretly hear their lawsuit against the company.

A judge with a long-term background in military intelligence is overseeing a case brought by a Saudi dissident and a friend of the murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The friend claimed that the National Bureau of Statistics knew that his own mobile phone had become a target. Although it was announced that he had had contacts with lawyers from the National Bureau of Statistics, the judge refused to recuse him.

“The impression I got is that the government is eager to help them, especially in keeping the discussion away from any public scrutiny,” said Alaa Mahajna, the lead lawyer in the two lawsuits.

“These companies should be responsible for the dangerous technologies they sell, but the most effective way is prevention. Unfortunately, only the Department of Defense can do this.”

Center Naftali Bennett, when he was Secretary of Defense last year, suggested using NSO to track citizens during a pandemic © Gil Cohen-Magen/POOL/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

Hulio declined to comment on the ongoing case. The National Bureau of Statistics said: “These issues have previously been raised in court cases against the National Bureau of Statistics and others, and the court has never accepted this position.”

As far as NSO is concerned, it makes no secret of its relationship with the Israeli government. In 2019, his lawyer argued in a court case that disclosing his client list “will seriously damage the country’s foreign relations”. In another document, the company also stated that the Israeli government itself uses NSO’s technology. Many of its staff come from elite military intelligence units.

The National Bureau of Statistics has hired well-known Western consultants, including Tom Rich, the former secretary of the US Department of Homeland Security, and Juliette Kayyem, the assistant secretary of the same department. Its current public relations offensive is led by the former chief inspector of the Israeli army.

Two people familiar with the matter said that sometimes, the Israeli government will intervene to guide the company’s sales, especially after high-profile scandals, such as the killing of a Saudi agent. Khashoggi October 2018.

NSO initially terminated its contract with Saudi Arabia because of accusations that its technology had been used to track Khashoggi and his colleagues. But two people familiar with the matter said that in 2019, it renewed the contract with the full approval of the Israeli government.

“It is directly encouraged to maintain this relationship,” one said, adding that employees of the National Bureau of Statistics returning from the Gulf often receive reports from the Israeli intelligence services. Hulio of NSO denied any such briefing.

“The Sacred Cow of Economy”

Usually, the Israeli government’s contacts are more public. After a dam collapsed in Brazil in January 2019, killing hundreds of people, the government dispatched Hulio of the NSO, who was a reserve member of the Israeli army’s search and rescue force as part of its assistance mission.

“As part of the reserve duties, I went there. I am proud of what I am doing, which has nothing to do with the National Bureau of Statistics,” he said.

According to people familiar with the matter, Hulio showed how NSO’s software can also be used to triangulate the position of the phone to the last centimeter.

“Israel has certain diplomatic goals, and its interests sometimes coincide with those of these commercial companies,” said Shay Aspril, a writer and investigative reporter who first exposed the NSO’s secret technology in 2012.

“The Israeli public does not fully understand what is going on inside high-tech-the sacred cow of the economy-and because the Israeli public doesn’t really care, the government has no public pressure to change anything.”



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