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Israel said lobbying US to reverse blacklisting of NSO spy firm

Report says government was alarmed by Washington’s move, and saw it as an implicit accusation that it is harming American interests

A branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)
A branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Israel is lobbying the United States to reverse its blacklisting last week of surveillance company NSO Group, The New York Times reported late Monday.

NSO Group was blacklisted by the United States for developing and supplying “spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers,” according to a US Commerce Department statement.

The Israeli firm has faced a torrent of international criticism over allegations it helps governments spy on dissidents and rights activists. NSO insists its product is meant only to assist countries in fighting crime and terrorism.

Citing two unnamed senior Israeli officials, the report said Washington’s recent move has alarmed Jerusalem. It said Israel views the accusation that NSO acted against US interests as an implicit accusation against Israel, which licenses its software.

Now, Israel will try to convince US President Joe Biden’s administration that the activities of NSO and a second blacklisted firm, Candiru, “remain of great importance to the national security of both countries,” the report said.

Jerusalem is willing to agree to much tighter supervision on its licensing of NSO’s software, the officials were quoted as saying.

The firm’s flagship spyware, Pegasus, is considered one of the most powerful cyber-surveillance tools available on the market, giving operators the ability to effectively take full control of a target’s phone, download all data from the device or activate its camera or microphone without the user knowing. In older versions of the system, the owner of the phone needed to unknowingly download a file or click on a link to give operators access to the device, but newer iterations have done away with this requirement, giving away control of the phone without the user needing to do anything.

The alleged use of NSO Group’s technology by Morocco against French President Emmanuel Macron sparked a diplomatic squabble between Jerusalem and Paris, which the two countries agreed to put behind them last week, following a meeting between Macron and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

Shawan Jabarin, director of the al-Haq human rights group, at the organization’s offices in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Saturday, Oct. 23, 2021 (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

In the latest in a string of accusations against NSO group, independent investigations published Monday by the University of Toronto and Amnesty International found that cellphones belonging to at least six Palestinian rights activists were hacked using Pegasus. The report did not specify who was behind the alleged hacking, but NSO Group’s export license prohibits the firm from allowing foreign customers to hack Israeli phones — indicating that the hacking was done by Israel, in what would be the first documented case of the technology being used against phones served by Israeli carriers.

The allegations came amid international criticism of Israel after the Defense Ministry and the military outlawed six Palestinian rights groups, accusing them of acting as fronts for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group, which the organizations have denied. Israel says it has classified information proving the connection.

At least three of the hacked phones belonged to members of the blacklisted groups.

In response to the allegations, an NSO Group spokesperson said that “contractual and national security considerations” prevented them from revealing the identity of their clients.

“As we stated in the past, NSO does not operate the products itself; the company license approved government agencies to do so. We are not privy to the details of individuals monitored,” the spokesperson said.

This summer, news outlets around the world revealed the scope of NSO Group’s activities based on Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s investigations, finding that the firm’s software had been used by many countries with poor human rights records to hack the phones of thousands of activists, journalists and politicians.

Judah Ari Gross and Aaron Boxerman contributed to this report.

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