CEO: Pegasus sold to 40 countries; we said no to another 90

NSO chief calls blacklisting by US ‘an outrage,’ rejects ‘hypocritical’ criticism

Shalev Hulio says firm has disconnected Pegasus spyware 7 times over misuse; denies it was used against Macron, or in Khashoggi murder: ‘I sleep soundly at night. NSO here to stay’

NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio speaks with Channel 12 News in an interview aired on January 29, 2022. (Screenshot/Channel 12)
NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio speaks with Channel 12 News in an interview aired on January 29, 2022. (Screenshot/Channel 12)

The CEO and co-founder of NSO Group pushed back Saturday on criticism of his embattled cyber tech firm amid mounting allegations its Pegasus spyware program has been misused in Israel and across the globe.

Asserting that many of the most serious claims made against the company were untrue, Shalev Hulio said its software had been created to battle terrorism and serious crime, while rejecting its image as a tool mainly used to suppress freedoms around the world.

“It’s a cyber weapon. Our first rule was that we would only sell these tools to governments,” Hulio said from the company’s high-rise office in Herzliya. “Our second decision was that we wouldn’t sell to every government — that there were governments that on day one we could see that we must not sell to them… We refused to sell to 90 countries — 90 countries that came and asked, and we said no. We sold to maybe 40.”

Hulio called criticism of NSO Group’s sale of Pegasus to non-democratic countries “hypocritical,” comparing the surveillance technology to military weapons systems.

“There is not one country we’ve sold to, not one… that the US does not sell to, or that Israel doesn’t sell to. So it’s a bit hypocritical to say it’s okay to sell F-35s and tanks and drones, but it’s not okay to sell a tool that collects intelligence,” he said.

“If we see that [Pegasus] is being misused, or even suspect it is being misused, we disconnect the system,” he said, claiming this had happened seven times over the years.

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. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

“I absolutely sleep soundly at night,” he added.

Hulio sounded off on the recent US decision to blacklist NSO Group and another Israeli firm for allegedly engaging in malicious cyber activities.

“Our technology has over the years helped the interests and national security of the United States quite a bit,” he said. “I think the fact that a company like NSO is on [a US blacklist] is an outrage… I’m sure we’ll be taken off that list. I have no doubt.”

Hulio denied Pegasus was used to hack the phone of French President Emmanuel Macron and other politicians, claims that led to a flurry of concerned communications between French and Israeli officials last year.

“No one hacked the French president or French parliamentarians, it has been proven and checked. This issue of Macron and members of [France’s] parliament is incorrect,” he said.

He also denied any link between NSO Group’s products and the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul.

In this photo taken on December 15, 2014, Jamal Khashoggi looks on at a press conference in the Bahraini capital Manama. (AFP/Mohammed Al-Shaikh)

“Our tools and our technology had nothing to do in any way with the murder, with Khashoggi, or with the people around him. I know this has been claimed, and I tell you, it’s a bald-faced lie,” he said.

On Friday, The New York Times reported that Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman directly phoned then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to get a renewal of the kingdom’s expired license for Pegasus, in exchange for opening up its airspace for Israeli flights. The Israeli Defense Ministry had initially refused to renew the license, citing the kingdom’s abuse of the spyware, apparently referring to the case of Khashoggi, who was reportedly tracked with Pegasus in the lead up to his murder in 2018.

Hulio added: “It’s become something of a national pastime to blame anything that happens on NSO. A large proportion of the reports are simply untrue, are prejudiced, and it certainly sometimes angers [me] and sometimes frustrates. But in the end… we know the truth.”

“There are never more than 200 targets for Pegasus at any one time. 200 targets. That’s the whole story,” he told the network.

Explainer: Terrifying cyber weapon ‘against which there’s no defense’: Experts on NSO’s spyware

Asked whether the State of Israel used NSO to sell Pegasus to other countries in the region, he said: “I don’t know. Ask the State of Israel.”

Hulio denied traveling the world with former Mossad chief Yossi Cohen, as reports have previously claimed. When asked whether Cohen had asked him to sell Pegasus to some entities, he smiled and did not answer.

Asked if NSO Group had made mistakes since its establishment, Hulio said, “Over a period of 12 years it’s impossible not to make mistakes, which you learn from.”

Former head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen attends the Jerusalem Post conference, held in Jerusalem, on October 12, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

According to the network, sources close to the company have acknowledged that Israeli government players have indeed offered Pegasus to authoritarian regimes in the Middle East, in return for warmed ties or peace agreements.

Cohen did not comment on the matter. Netanyahu’s office said Friday: “The claim that [then] prime minister Netanyahu spoke to foreign leaders and offered them these systems in exchange for a political achievement or some other achievement is a complete lie.”

Hulio was also asked about recent reports that have caused a storm of controversy in Israel, according to which the Israel Police used Pegasus to spy on civilians, including anti-Netanyahu protesters and Israelis not suspected of any crimes. Police have denied targeting protesters, but have not denied using the software in some cases, while maintaining any use was legal and under court oversight.

“As a citizen, if the things that were written are true, it worries me personally. But as a citizen, I tell you I choose to believe the attorney general, the public security minister, and the police chief who say time and again these things never happened,” Hulio said.

The attorney general recently launched a probe into the claims, though he has said he has no current evidence to suggest police behaved wrongly.

Hulio also said it is “built-in” to Pegasus that it cannot be used on Israeli cellphone numbers.

Left: Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, speaks during the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) Summit in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 14, 2022; Right: Benjamin Netanyahu during a Likud party meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 13, 2021. (Bandar Aljaloud/Saudi Royal Palace via AP; Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

On Apple suing NSO, and troubles with other media giants, Hulio said: “There’s some hypocrisy. These giants, the Facebooks, the Googles, the Apples, they are the ones who allow end-to-end encryption.” This, he argued, was creating a true difficulty for law enforcement around the world hoping to stop dangerous crimes.

“On the other hand, you have the extreme cases of terrorists and criminals who ultimately must be caught. There’s a conflict between the right to privacy, which is super-important,  and the right to national security, which is also super-important. And that’s exactly where the argument is.”

He went on: “As a father, do you really, heaven forbid, want someone to harass your daughter online, or heaven forbid actually harass her… You want her to be able to travel safely on the bus. You want tools like these. Enough of this hypocrisy,” he said.

The network said NSO already has technology that goes even further than Pegasus — technology which doesn’t just drain device information but also analyzes it. Within seconds, it can precisely map communication connections, the report said.

NSO’s Leoz Michaelson, VP of Analytics Product Line, explained that if “patterns” of communication change, such as shorter or longer calls between two people in habitual contact — that shows “something is up.”

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

Channel 12 was also given access to three of the company’s 600 employees. Asked if they were embarrassed to work there due to the bad press, one employee said, “Absolutely not… we go around with shirts with the company logo,” and expressed “pride” in the firm’s work.

Michaelson acknowledged that “it has not been easy to be an NSO staffer in the past year,” but added that he wouldn’t be there if he thought the firm wasn’t operating legitimately.

Recent months have seen two senior NSO officials depart, including its chairman, Asher Levy, though Levy has insisted his departure was planned months ago and was not connected to recent turmoil.

Hulio said he founded the company with two friends, initially to provide tech support for phones remotely. Only later did the trio come to realize their technology could be used for intelligence purposes.

Asked what he would have said if, 12 years ago, he had been told the company’s name would once be known all over the world, Hulio said: “I’d have said you were crazy.”

But, he added, “as long as there is no other solution to crime and terror, these technologies will have no expiration date.”

“I am here to stay. We, NSO, are here to stay,” he said.

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