NSO head claims company ended services in human rights-violating countries

Shalev Hulio says spy firm also rejected some 90 countries over the years, and a reported list of targets is unrelated to its controversial software

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

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

Shalev Hulio, founder and CEO of the controversial NSO Group, responded Tuesday to an international investigation that found that the company’s cyber-surveillance products are being used by governments around the world to track political dissidents and journalists, some of whom were killed.

“The platform that we create is a platform that saves lives and prevents terrorist attacks, and that needs to be understood,” Hulio told 103FM radio on Tuesday morning.

The investigation focused on Pegasus, a spyware tool sold by NSO Group that it says is being used by dozens of governmental clients. The analysis carried out on a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers found that the list included people targeted by the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates.

Hulio said in response that the list of numbers was unrelated to his company. “NSO has no list of targets,” he told the station, and described the company’s policy, which was decided upon when it was established.

“We made some decisions that are like the NSO Group constitution, and they accompany us to this day. The first is that we only sell to governments, not to individuals or organizations,” he said. “The second decision was that we won’t sell to every government, since there are some governments that should not have such tools.”

Illustrative. An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP/File)

Hulio claimed that over the past 11 years, the company sold its services to 45 countries, and rejected some 90 countries that offered to pay for the software it sells.

“I think that this says a lot, because there are companies around the world where the business model is built on going to places where NSO refuses to work,” he told the radio station.

Hulio also claimed that NSO Group had terminated the use of its software in five countries after it found out that they had abused the system. “If there is a country that you know is a country that violates human rights, doesn’t value human life, tracks journalists, even if not through our tools — these are countries that we do not want to work with, and that is why we stopped working with them,” he said.

The recent findings on the alleged illicit use of the Pegasus software was reported on by The Washington Post, Le Monde, Die Zeit, the Guardian, Haaretz, PBS Frontline and many other news outlets, which collaborated on an investigation into a data leak, alongside French journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International.

The software installs itself on a phone without requiring users to click a link, and gives the hacker complete access to the entire contents of the phone, as well as the ability to use its cameras and microphone undetected.

According to the reporting, people across over 50 countries were traced to numbers on the list, including several heads of state and prime ministers, Arab royal family members, business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists, and more than 600 politicians and government officials.

“I do not want to play the victim here and say we are being harassed, but I really think this is an amateurish investigation, despite all these media outlets. There is a list that the people who wrote the research have, but we do not know to whom the list belongs,” Hulio said.

The Defense Ministry said on Monday said that if it found that the NSO Group violated the terms of its export licenses, it would “take appropriate action,” but refused to say if it will investigate the claims.

Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report

Most Popular
read more: