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NSO chairman steps down, says departure unrelated to spyware strife

Asher Levy says he submitted his resignation due to ownership change, as company comes under fire from public and lawmakers over allegations that police surveilled civilians

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

The former chairman of the controversial NSO Group confirmed on Tuesday that he had stepped down from his position weeks earlier, but said his departure was planned months ago and was not connected to recent outrage over allegations that Israeli police had used the company’s technology to spy on civilians.

Asher Levy’s departure as head of NSO’s board of directors was first reported Tuesday by the Calcalist newspaper, amid ongoing turmoil at home and abroad over sales of phone hacking technology sold to governments and used against dissidents, activists, journalists and others.

“Contrary to recent reports about the end of my role as chairman, I would like to clarify that there is no connection between the end of my role and the recent reports about NSO,” Asher Levy said in a statement.

He claimed he had submitted his resignation last summer, and finished his term as chairman at the end of the year, following ownership changes at the firm.

“I can understand why people are making the connection,” he told The Associated Press. “In reality it has nothing to do with the breaking news, so to speak, around NSO.”

Last week, reports by the Calcalist business daily said Israel Police had used NSO Group spyware to track Israeli civilians, including activists and mayors, without any judicial oversight.

The allegations sparked outrage from the public and lawmakers, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit launched an investigation. Police have not denied using NSO Group technology, but said they did not break any laws.

Levy said he remains on good terms with what he called an “important company” and will continue to offer his assistance.

The company’s former owners, Novalpina Capital, appointed Levy as chairman in April 2020. He said he submitted his resignation when Berkeley Research Group, a US investment firm, took control of NSO Group in July.

He said he gradually wound down his involvement over several months, completing his term at the end of the year.

“I did what you are expected to do” when a new fund takes over management of a company, he said.

He said he told them, “I’m not your guy. You may want to bring on your own guy. That’s the common practice.”

NSO Group also said Levy’s departure was linked to the ownership change.

“Asher Levy was a chairman on behalf of Novalpina Capital. Naturally, when a new fund came in, his tenure also came to an end, and BRG, which replaced Novalpina, appointed a new chairman on its behalf,” it said.

Finbarr O’Connor, the managing director of BRG Corporate Finance, will become the company’s new chairman, Calcalist reported.

Calcalist first reported last week that police have for years been making widespread use of Pegasus spyware against Israeli civilians, including people not suspected of any crimes, without legal oversight. Further reports of misuse have since emerged.

Mandelblit announced an investigation into the affair, writing to Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai that “it is difficult to overstate the severity of the alleged harm to basic rights” if the report was true.

Public Security Minister Omer Barlev, who oversees police, has defended police conduct, but said wiretap laws must be adapted to account for modern technology.

NSO Group’s Pegasus software 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.

NSO Group has been involved in numerous scandals in recent years and has faced a torrent of international criticism over allegations it helps governments, including dictatorships and authoritarian regimes, spy on dissidents and rights activists. In November, the US Department of Commerce blacklisted NSO Group, adding it to the list of foreign companies that engage in malicious cyber activities.

The company would neither confirm nor deny it sold its technology to Israeli police, stressing that it does “not operate the system once sold to its governmental customers and it is not involved in any way in the system’s operation.”

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