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Government said to form team to deal with fallout of NSO spyware revelations

Report says officials looking into PR, diplomatic consequences from allegations that firm’s Pegasus software was used by countries to spy on politicians, journalists

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 27, 2021.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett chairs the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 27, 2021.(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo, Pool)

The government has appointed a special team to handle the fallout of revelations that Israel-based NSO Group sold spyware allegedly used by governments to target politicians, journalists and others worldwide, according to a Tuesday report.

Citing two unnamed senior Israeli officials, the Walla news site said the interagency team will examine the allegations against NSO published in numerous international outlets and what the potential security, diplomatic and legal consequences could be. The team, which reportedly first met on Sunday, includes representatives from the Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry, Mossad and Military Intelligence.

The officials said the government was treating the matter very seriously and that the main question was how to deal with other companies and future agreements, as standard procedures appeared to have been taken in granting export licenses to NSO.

“This is a very significant event,” one of the officials was quoted saying. “We are trying to understand its full significance. We must check if after the latest publications there is a need for a change in policy concerning the expert of offensive cyber systems to other countries.”

The news site also cited concerns in Israel that though the initial damage has been confined to public and media criticism, the allegations could lead to diplomatic fallout.

The logo of the Israeli NSO Group company on a building where they had offices in Herzliya, on August 25, 2016. (AP Photo/Daniella Cheslow)

The report came as the NGO that leaked the list of 50,000 potential targets for NSO’s Pegasus software said French President Emmanuel Macron’s phone number was among them, and French radio reported that Moroccan King Mohammed VI’s number was identified a list of possible targets by Morocco’s intelligence services.

Earlier Tuesday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz asserted Israel operates fully within international law in its granting of export licenses.

“We are aware of recent publications regarding the use of systems developed in certain Israeli cyber companies,” said Gantz in a speech to Cyber Week at Tel Aviv University, without mentioning NSO Group by name. “Israel, as a liberal Western democracy, controls exports of cyber products in accordance with its defense export control law, complying with international export control regimes.”

Gantz added that, “as a matter of policy, the State of Israel authorizes the export of cyber products solely to governments, only for lawful use, and exclusively for the purposes of preventing and investigating crime and terrorism. The countries acquiring these systems must abide by their commitments to these requirements. We are currently studying the information that is published on the subject.”

On Sunday, an in-depth investigation led by 17 major international news organizations claimed that NSO Group has sold cellphone malware used to target journalists, activists and politicians in dozens of countries.

The reporting focused on Pegasus, a spyware tool sold by NSO that the investigation said is being used by dozens of governmental clients. The analysis carried out on a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers found that the list included people targeted by the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates.

The Guardian’s report on Pegasus claimed that Gantz “closely regulates NSO” and approves each individual export license before the surveillance software is sold to a new country. In its response, NSO stated that “you falsely claim that the Israeli government monitors the use of our customers’ systems, which is the type of conspiracy theory that our critics peddle,” adding: “Regarding export licenses, NSO is subject to various export control regimes including the Israeli MoD, similar to existing regulations in other democratic countries.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks during Tel Aviv University’s cyber week conference on July 20, 2021. (Tal Oz/Defense Ministry)

In a statement on Monday, the Defense Ministry said if it finds that the NSO Group violated the terms of its export licenses, it will “take appropriate action.” The ministry said that Israel only permits companies to export cybersecurity products to “government figures only for legal purposes and to prevent and investigate crimes and to combat terrorism. And this is dependent upon commitments regarding the end use/user from the purchasing country, which must abide by these conditions.”

NSO Group has denied selling the software to authoritarian governments for the purposes of spying on dissenters, labeling the allegations “false.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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