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Israeli spyware group said appealing to gov’t for help fighting US blacklisting

NSO Group CEO pens letter to Bennett, saying his support will be critical in battling Biden administration move, after Jerusalem initially declines to weigh in

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 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 embattled Israeli spyware firm NSO Group has reportedly reached out directly to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, asking for his support in fighting a recent decision by the Biden administration to blacklist the company over alleged involvement in malicious activities throughout the globe.

NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio penned a letter to Bennett, in which he claimed that the firm was being targeted for political reasons in a campaign by anti-Israel organizations, the Walla news site reported Thursday.

The letter was also sent to Defense Minister Benny Gantz, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman.

Hulio warned that the blacklisting will significantly damage his organization financially and hurt its reputation, arguing this could result in hundreds of workers needing to be fired.

Intervention by the Israeli government “would be a basic condition” of reversing the United States decision, Hulio wrote.

Earlier this week, The New York Times reported that the Israeli government has already begun lobbying on NSO Group’s behalf to have the firm removed from the US Department of Commerce’s Entity List.

But Walla said Thursday that the report was false and that no such decision has been made.

NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio speaks with the Calcalist paper, on April 20, 2020. (YouTube screenshot)

Moreover, the Israeli site said that senior Israeli officials met last week to mull over the matter and decided against helping NSO Group for now.

Still, Foreign Ministry officials reached out to counterparts in the US State Department to express their disappointment with the manner in which the decision to blacklist NSO Group was carried out. According to Walla, Jerusalem was only notified of the decision an hour ahead of time.

Last month, the State Department claimed that it did not receive an advance notice of Israel’s decision to blacklist six Palestinian human rights organizations — something that Jerusalem refuted.

“The Americans know how to complain that we do not update them, even when we do update them. But in this case, they are the ones who did not update,” a senior Israeli official told the news site.

The US justified its decision last week, claiming that NSO Group supplies “spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers.”

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.

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

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.

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.

Earlier Thursday, the Associated Press reported that Hulio’s tapped successor Isaac Benbenisti has decided to resign from the company, rather than fill the top post.

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