How Israel used NSO spyware as a diplomatic calling card

How Israel used NSO spyware as a diplomatic calling card

NSO’s co-founder and chief executive, Shalev Hulio, denied the consortium’s findings, which allege that NSO’s spyware has been regularly used on members of civil society, opposition leaders and people with no connection to terrorism or crime. The Ministry of Defence, which must approve every licence to export the weaponry, said that “appropriate measures are taken” if any violations of the export licence are proved. “We are claiming very vocally that these are not Pegasus targets, or selected as Pegasus targets, or potential Pegasus targets. This has no relation to any customer of ours or NSO technology,” he told the Financial Times, vowing to shut down any customer’s systems that are proved to infect devices belonging to journalists or members of civil society.

The legal team at a hearing on Amnesty International’s petition to have Israel revoke NSO’s export licence at Tel Aviv’s district court last year © Corinna Kern/Reuters “From the 1950s, Israel used its weapons sales for diplomatic gains, the only thing that changes is the names of the countries,” said Eitay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer who has tried for years to have NSO’s export licence cancelled. “The question is if there will be some change in the exports policy.”

While the recent news media leaks on Pegasus sparked international outrage, the criticism in Israel has been muted. The reporting “looks tendentious, with a commercial motivation”, said lawmaker Yair Golan, a former deputy military chief, jumping to NSO’s support in a televised speech. “It is not just NSO that does such things.” NSO’s Pegasus software, which requires a government licence for export because it is considered a weapon, has in recent years become a crucial part of Israel’s diplomatic outreach — a role that has come into focus after this weekend’s revelation by a consortium of newspapers that it had been traced to the cell phones of 37 journalists, lawyers and political activists. The software surreptitiously turns phones into listening devices while unveiling their encrypted contents.

As the countries grew closer, groups such as Amnesty and the Citizen Lab have tracked increasing Pegasus intrusions into the phones of journalists, dissidents and activists across the region. “It’s like the toy that every intelligence officer wants,” said a person involved in pitching NSO products in the Gulf. “They love the demos, they love that it is from Israel.” In recent years, Israel has wooed Gulf countries such as the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia into improving bilateral relations, by offering clandestine security co-operation against shared regional enemies, from the Muslim Brotherhood to Iran.

‘The toy that everyone wants’ NSO has said in the past that it does not have access to its client’s targets. Hulio said the company had queried each one of its clients individually to reach that conclusion.

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