One of the founders of the Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group on Friday denied his company’s cell phone tracking technology was used to target dissident Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the lead up to his murder last year.
“There was no use on Khashoggi, including listening, monitoring, tracking, collecting info with any product or technology of NSO,” Shalev Hulio told the Yedioth Ahronoth daily in a rare interview.
Hulio said NSO’s phone-tracking software, called Pegasus, is only used against terrorists and criminals, and has lately prevented a number of terrorist plots in Europe.
“In the last half year the company’s products have been part of thwarting several large terror attacks in Europe, both with car bombs and suicide bombers,” Hulio said.
“I can say in all modesty that thousands of people in Europe owe their lives to hundreds of our company employees from Herzliya,” he said.
Hulio added that any use of NSO products for activities other than crime and terrorism prevention results in “immediate sanctions by the company, decisively and without compromise.”
NSO has been under the spotlight for months as dissidents, journalists and other opposition figures have claimed the company’s technology has been used by repressive governments to spy on them.
These include Mexican, Saudi and Qatari journalists who have filed lawsuits against the company and an Amnesty International employee who was allegedly targeted by the software.
Pegasus infects individuals’ phones by sending them text messages that tempt them to click an attached link. If the target clicks on the link, the company gains full control over the phone, including its contents and history, and the ability to activate its microphone and camera at will.
Omar Abdulaziz, a sharp online critic of the Saudi royals who lives in exile in Canada, filed suit against NSO in December claiming that communications between him and Khashoggi were monitored by the Saudis using its software.
Days after Abdulaziz filed his suit, the Washington Post reported that the Israeli government approved the sale of Pegasus to Saudi Arabia in order to hack dissidents and enemies of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The sale was seen as part of a push in Israel to grow closer to Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries as part of an anti-Iran alliance and also to expand intelligence sharing in the region.
NSO has pushed back against reports that Pegasus was used by the Saudis to track Khashoggi before he was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
In a December statement to The Times of Israel, NSO called the lawsuit from Abdulaziz “completely unfounded.” It claimed the suit was based on inaccurate “press clippings” and showed “no evidence that the company’s technology was used.”
According to the suit, filed at a Tel Aviv court, Abdulaziz is demanding about $160,000 in damages and an order preventing NSO from selling its technology to Saudi Arabia.
The company says its products “are licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime in the modern age.”
The secretive company rarely speaks to the media, does not publicly identify its customers and does not even have a website.
But a person familiar with NSO told the Associated Press last month that NSO keeps tight oversight over its sales. He said the company will not do business with 21 countries, including Russia, China and Turkey, as well as many others blocked by the Defense Ministry.
He also said NSO has an “ethics committee” that includes human rights experts and former US officials that must vet every sale. He said the committee has blocked over $100 million in deals over the past three years, though he declined to elaborate. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing inside corporate information.
Possible use of Israeli technology to police dissent in the Arab world could raise uncomfortable questions both for Israel, which sees itself as a bastion of democracy in the region, and for countries with no formal diplomatic ties to the Jewish state.
In the Friday interview, Hulio also said that NSO’s tracking software played a role in the 2015 dramatic capture of Mexican drug kingpin El Chapo — Joaquín Guzmán — in a sting operation that included Hollywood actor Sean Penn and Mexican actress Kate del Castillo.
Guzman is currently on trial in New York, charged with trafficking 155 tonnes of cocaine into the United States as head of the powerful Sinaloa cartel. Guzmán, 61, was extradited to the United States in 2017 after staging two spectacular prison breaks in Mexico.