Israeli spyware firm NSO operates in shadowy cyber world
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Israeli spyware firm NSO operates in shadowy cyber world

Exposure of WhatsApp hack draws further attention to company whose technology has been reportedly used to spy on dissidents, journalists, rights groups

In this photo from August 28, 2016, an Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed NSO Group. (Jack Guez/AFP)
In this photo from August 28, 2016, an Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed NSO Group. (Jack Guez/AFP)

An Israeli spyware company named in a Financial Times report on a WhatsApp security flaw prides itself on “rigorous, ethical standards” despite previous links to alleged espionage.

Pocket spy

Founded in 2010 by Israelis Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, NSO is based in the seaside hi-tech hub of Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. It says it employs 600 people in Israel and around the world.

It produces Pegasus, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target’s cell phone camera and microphone, and access data on it, effectively turning the phone into a pocket spy.

Khashoggi denial

In a January interview with Israeli daily Maariv, Hulio was asked about reports that telephone spyware was used to bug Jamal Khashoggi prior to the Saudi journalist’s killing last October in Istanbul.

“As a human being and as an Israeli, what happened to Khashoggi was a shocking murder,” the company’s CEO said.

“I can tell you on the record that Khashoggi was not targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection.”

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2011. (AP /Virginia Mayo, File)

A hit in Mexico ?

In Mexico, where investigative journalist Javier Valdez was shot dead on the street in broad daylight in 2017, prominent journalists and activists say the government of former president Enrique Pena Nieto targeted them using Pegasus.

The New York Times reported at the time that at least three Mexican federal agencies had purchased some $80 million of spyware from NSO Group since 2011.

Friends and relatives hold a picture of murdered journalist Javier Valdez during a funeral mass in Culiacan Mexico, May 16, 2017. (AP Photo/Rashide Frias)

In one case, international experts investigating the disappearance of 43 students in Mexico in 2014 were targeted with the spyware after it had been sold to the government, the experts said.

In 2016, Apple rushed out a security update after researchers said prominent Emirati rights activist Ahmed Mansoor was targeted by UAE authorities using Pegasus spyware.

The software has been pinpointed by independent experts as likely being used in a number of countries with poor human rights records.

Court challenge

NSO’s website says the company has “a pioneering approach to applying rigorous, ethical standards to everything we do.”

It says it has a vetting process on sales which combines licensing by Israeli export-control authorities with an internal review by a business ethics committee.

The firm said Tuesday that it only licenses its software to governments for “fighting crime and terror.”

UK-based rights group Amnesty International, however, said its members and supporters in Israel had Monday petitioned the Tel Aviv district court against continued government export approval for NSO software.

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