NSO Group confirms police have watered-down version of Pegasus spyware

Shalev Hulio insists software sold abroad can’t be used against Israeli phones; says police got Saifan product, with capacity to crack local devices

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 Israel Police was sold a version of the Pegasus spyware that is weaker than the software sold abroad but, unlike the international package, can be used against Israeli cellphones, the CEO of NSO Group said Tuesday.

Shalev Hulio confirmed to Radio103FM in an interview that police were provided with the Saifan package, which was assumed to be the case based on police rhetoric, media reports and expert opinions.

Earlier this year, accusations were made in media that police had made unwarranted use of Pegasus to spy on Israeli citizens through their phones.

“The police incident was not Pegasus but Saifan, a weaker version of Pegasus, with fewer capabilities and options for action. They tried to paint it as if they were spying on Israeli citizens; this of course was not true,” Hulio said.

Hulio told the station that when any Pegasus system is sold abroad, “we want to make sure they won’t be used against Israel.”

Pegasus is made with “a protective system that doesn’t enable it to work on Israeli numbers,” he said.

However, his remarks indicated that Saifan can be used against Israeli devices.

Hulio also reiterated that police would not have been able, without cooperation from NSO, to delete the audit trail of logs in the system that show which phones were targeted. The company has previously denied it did any such thing.

In February the Calcalist newspaper reported, without providing evidence or citing sources, that dozens of high-profile Israeli figures — including former ministry directors, prominent business figures, and family members and associates of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — were spied on by police using the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without any judicial oversight.

Investigations by police and an interim report by Deputy Attorney General Amit Marari found Calcalist’s reporting to have been largely incorrect, with none of the 26 people supposedly hacked having actually been targeted by police.

Pegasus is an extremely powerful tool that delivers a zero-click exploit — requiring no user interaction — allowing the spyware’s operator to remotely gain access to all of a phone’s data and functionality. It also enables operators to listen in on calls and use it as a listening device.

Israeli media reports have suggested it was only those latter capabilities that police had access to.

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