NSO’s Pegasus Scandal Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg of Israeli Spyware

August 12, 2021

NSO offers security, but it also provides infectious viruses. With its Pegasus cyberattack tool, it does not aim to make the world safer but makes it more vulnerable, more at risk, and more afraid.
A woman checks the website of Israel-made Pegasus spyware at an office in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on July 21, 2021. Photo by Mario Goldman, AFP via Getty Images

“Stop what you’re doing and read this. This leak is going to be the story of the year,” wrote the eminent NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden last month as Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories obtained a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers of potential targets of the Israeli spyware company, NSO Group.

NSO’s main service is Pegasus, a malware that infects iPhones and Android devices to enable the tool’s operators to extract messages, photos, and emails; record calls; and secretly activate microphones. The geographical scope of both NSO clients and victims seems limitless – from the Middle East to Europe, the U.S., Africa, East Asia, and Latin America. Traces of the Pegasus malware were most recently discovered on phones in the United Kingdom and France, amongst 45 other countries where the virus was found.

The company’s usual targets, which were revealed over the last few years, were mostly journalists, activists, and dissidents – some of whom ended up being tortured, arrested, killed, or forcibly disappeared as a consequence. However, the formidable, leaked list included some targets with unbelievable portfolios; NSO has moved from spying on journalists to spying on presidents, prime ministers, royalty, CEOs, and public figures. One of the most prominent highlights in the leaked list was France’s president Emmanuel Macron and Morocco’s king Mohammed VI.

This prompted the French government to demand an explanation from the Israeli government, which then hurried to send its defense minister to Paris for a few hours to assure France that Israel will take this issue seriously. The French National Agency for the Security of Information Systems has confirmed finding traces of Pegasus malware on the phone of a senior journalist in its state-owned international news network France24.

This latest revelation underlines one crucial conclusion: NSO is out of control. Its malicious hacking services, which are virtually unconstrained, have become a major security threat in cyberspace, and it has the full backing of an Israeli government willing to turn a blind eye to the company’s activities in order to bolster its regional and international relations.

Israel is an international hub for spyware companies whose main personnel almost always comes from the Israeli military.

Indeed, NSO is just the tip of the iceberg. Israel is an international hub for spyware companies whose main personnel almost always comes from the Israeli military, especially the Israeli Military Intelligence Unit 8200. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) have perfected a multitude of surveillance strategies as a result of their decades-long abuse of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories in flagrant violation of their right to privacy.

The services Israeli hacking companies offer are the strongest selling point for normalization between autocratic regimes that are terrified of their own people ever since the Arab Spring and of Israel. For decades, the security apparatus of the latter has been showcasing its ability to utilize cutting-edge technologies in brutalizing, suppressing, and containing an occupied population, making it a regional go-to for authoritarian rulers.

Even the way NSO’s spyware is marketed sounds awfully familiar to Palestinians as it borrows textbook propaganda from the Israeli army. NSO claims that it provides authorized governments with hacking services that help them “combat terror and crime.” This is an identical talking point regularly used by Israel’s army to justify every brutal action against Palestinian civilians.

International Destabilization

The hour of reckoning is now finally looming for the company as it crossed a redline- namely, putting its cyberattack tools to the service of autocrats against Western states that have traditionally been some of Israel’s strongest allies, such as the UK and France.

And NSO wouldn’t be the only one facing retribution, for the Israeli government is wholly complicit in these malicious activities as it has long provided the company with full impunity to wreak havoc freely and unconstrained.

Israel’s Ministry of Defense claims to maintain stringent criteria for issuing permits for the export of cyber-intelligence technologies that come after a strenuous process of extreme vetting.

Israel’s Ministry of Defense claims to maintain stringent criteria for issuing permits for the export of cyber-intelligence technologies that come after a strenuous process of extreme vetting. The ministry further claims that it continues to oversee such projects even after a permit has been issued. However, NSO is one of a number of cyber companies that not only get a free pass on their dangerous and destructive exports to repressive regimes, but enjoy the full protection by Israel’s government.

For example, when Amnesty International petitioned an Israeli court to revoke NSO’s export license given the damage it is causing, and provided the court with compelling evidence of the company’s wrongdoing, the court dismissed the case out of hand and argued that Israel’s Ministry of Defense maintains meticulous oversight procedures on defense exports.

The Israeli government under Benjamin Netanyahu was even NSO’s patron, whereby it promoted and pushed its spyware sales across the world. Wherever Netanyahu traveled on official visits, deals between the visited country’s government and NSO followed – from Hungary to Mexico, India, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and others.

This positions Israel as a force for regional and international destabilization where state-sanctioned – and state-sponsored – private spyware firms like NSO have been the informal arm of the Israeli government that are employed “off the record” to do the dirtiest work, such as espionage and interference in foreign countries.

This can also be seen in the activities of another Israeli cybersecurity firm, Psy-Group, which ran a $2 million voter suppression operation in support of Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, according to the 2020 report of the U.S. Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. The operation was paid by George Nader, an advisor to de facto  UAE ruler Mohammed bin Zayed (MBZ).

The Israeli government’s complicity with NSO’s cyberweapons should raise more than eyebrows. Accountability is paramount. The very least Israel’s government should do is to immediately revoke NSO’s export license and ban spyware trade.

NSO does not only offer security, it also provides infectious viruses. It does not aim to make the world safer – with its Pegasus cyberattack tool, it aims to make it more vulnerable, more at risk, and more afraid. If NSO can hack into the phones of statesmen, parliamentarians, and CEOs, no phone is safe from its malware until action is taken.

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Muhammad Shehada is a Sweden-based writer and analyst. He’s a columnist at the Forward and a contributing writer to Haaretz. His work appeared in Aljazeera, Vice, the Nations, the New Arab and others.

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