Firms like NSO are causing direct harm to Israel, says diaspora affairs minister

Nachman Shai says dark arts intel firms are like ‘a rogue program’ that have inflitrated Israel’s widely admired high-tech industry, hurting diplomatic interests and support

In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, an Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)
In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, an Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez/AFP)

The NSO Group spyware saga is highly damaging to Israel, including in terms of international support, and surveillance intel firms need to be reined in, Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai said on Saturday.

Shai told Channel 12 that the Israeli high-tech industry was widely admired and appreciated overseas, “but it turns out that a kind of rogue program has penetrated Israeli high-tech.”

“We have to make certain that entities [such as NSO] are not able to play in the international game, because they directly harm Israeli diplomatic interests and cause harm among those parts of the Jewish public that admire Israel because of its high-tech,” Shai said.

NSO’s powerfully invasive Pegasus spyware can hack into cellphones without a user knowing, enabling clients to read every message, track a user’s location and tap into the phone’s camera and microphone.

According to an in-depth investigation by 17 news organizations this week, Pegasus has been implicated in possible mass surveillance of journalists, human rights defenders and 14 heads of state, whose phone numbers were among some 50,000 potential surveillance targets on a list leaked to rights group Amnesty International and Paris-based Forbidden Stories.

The investigation, titled the Pegasus Project, identified at least 180 journalists in 20 countries who were selected for potential targeting between 2016 and June 2021.

Minister of Diaspora Affairs Nachman Shai arrives at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem, for a group photo of the newly sworn in Israeli government, on June 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

NSO has said the leak is “not a list of targets or potential targets of Pegasus.”

The company also insists its software is only intended for use in fighting terrorism and other crimes, and that it exports to 45 countries, with approval from the Israeli government.

But the revelations caused a ruckus and a number of governments accused of using Pegasus spyware to monitor the activities of dissidents and other critics have denied doing so. This list includes Saudi Arabia, India, Morocco, Hungary, and the United Arab Emirates.

In France, President Emmanuel Macron ordered tighter security and changed his phone over the espionage concerns. Macron — whose name was on a list of alleged targets — ordered “a strengthening of all security protocols” following a specially convened meeting of the nation’s Defence Council, his office said on Thursday.

Macron reportedly spoke with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett this week to ensure that the matter was being dealt with by the Israeli government.

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks on his cellphone during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels, on July 20, 2020. (John Thys, Pool Photo via AP)

Meanwhile, Israel established a committee to review the allegations that NSO’s phone surveillance software was misused, the head of Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee announced on Thursday.

“The defense establishment appointed a review committee made up of a number of bodies,” lawmaker Ram Ben-Barak told Army Radio.

“When they finish their review, we’ll demand to see the results and assess whether we need to make corrections,” the former deputy head of Israel’s Mossad spy agency added.

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