Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group, whose hacking software can invade any telephone, has faced so much backlash that the US’ Biden administration imposed sanctions on the company.
The infamous NSO Group's products have hacked the phones of journalists, human rights activists, opposition groups and even estranged partners. Its pegasus program was used by numerous governments to spy on and eventually imprison human rights activists,
According to Axios, an American news website, NSO Group was slapped with new US sanctions last week and has since turned to the Israeli government to help lift them.
As per Israeli government policy, Pegasus cannot be used by a foreign government to hack an Israeli phone number; however, the Israeli government can use the software to hack its own numbers, raising questions about whether the government had used the spyware against Palestinian rights activists.
The Dublin-based human rights organisation Front Line Defenders said in a report that NSO spyware is heavily involved in monitoring and spying on Palestinians.
A global investigation led by Paris-based journalism group Forbidden Stories revealed in July that Pegasus hacked the phones of Middle Eastern royals connected to slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi - who was murdered in 2018 - and French President Emmanuel Macron, among others.
Palestinian activists and civil society employees say that they are determined to continue their work despite the criminalisation of their organisations by Israeli occupation and the hacking of their phones with Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli company NSO Group. pic.twitter.com/8QVioL87v4— #SaveSheikhJarra #SaveSilwan #BDS #Yemen #Kashmir (@ChristineJameis) November 15, 2021
Saudi Arabia also used the spyware as part of a campaign to crush dissent inside the kingdom and hunt down Saudi dissidents abroad after the NSO sold Pegasus to the country in 2017.
But the company insists that its software, which allows governments to secretly tap a phone, monitor its location, and import its information, is intended to help countries combat organised crime and terrorism.
In a “secret” letter obtained by Axios, the group’s CEO Shalev Hulio requested that Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett pressure the US government to lift sanctions imposed against the company.
The letter also argued that the sanctions could cause many Israeli job losses within the company.
"[Hulio] wrote that... the US decision... was a result of an orchestrated campaign by anti-Israeli organisations who want to harm Israeli companies... and stressed that formal backing by the Israeli government 'is a basic condition' for... efforts to lift the US sanctions," Axios reported.
The company’s biggest backer, the government of Israel, considers the software an important element of its foreign policy. For this reason the country is now lobbying the US to remove the company from its blacklist, two senior Israeli officials told the New York Times.
Six Palestinian activists have been targeted with NSO Group's #Pegasus spyware — a tool that has been used globally to intimidate and silence activists, journalists, and lawyers.@NSOGROUP: STOP HACKING ACTIVISTS. pic.twitter.com/U0osuS9h2X— Amnesty UK (@AmnestyUK) November 10, 2021
The US Commerce Department had previously said that NSO played a role “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interest of the United States.”
The Israeli officials said that if the US is accusing NSO of acting against its interests, it is then effectively accusing Israel, which licenses the software, of doing the same.
As the Israeli government campaigns to remove NSO from the US blacklist, it will also seek to persuade the Biden administration that its activities are of great importance to the national security of both countries, promising tighter supervision on licensing the software, the Israeli officials said.
However, three senior Israeli officials denied the New York Times report and said the Israeli Defense and Foreign ministries want to start a dialogue with the Biden administration on the broader issue of exports of cyber spying software, Axios reported.
“We want to talk to the US first in order to make sure that the NSO affair didn’t damage our bilateral relations. We would also want to hear from the US if they have any information we need to know about NSO, ”a senior Israeli official told Axios.
Nevertheless, the blacklisting of NSO sends a strong message to the group that “it can no longer profit from human rights abuses without repercussions,” Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty International Technology, said earlier this month.
“This is also a day of reckoning for NSO Group’s investors – will they continue to bankroll a company whose technology has been used to systematically violate human rights?” Ingleton said in a statement.
Hungary, India, Mexico, Morocco and Saudi Arabia are among the countries listed in the report as NSO clients.