Sources tell newspaper US criminal probe into NSO underway

NSO offered US security firm ‘bags of cash’ for access to cell networks — report

Washington Post: Whistleblower told US Justice Department that Israeli spyware firm tried to gain access to network used by Americans traveling abroad; US lawmaker: ‘Really fishy’

The NSO Group logo is seen on a smartphone placed on a laptop keyboard. (Mundissima/Alamy)
The NSO Group logo is seen on a smartphone placed on a laptop keyboard. (Mundissima/Alamy)

Controversial Israeli spyware company NSO Group offered a US cellphone-security firm “bags of cash” to gain access to cellular networks throughout the country, The Washington Post reported Tuesday.

The offer was reportedly exposed by a whistleblower who described the encounter between representatives of the two firms in confidential disclosures to the US Justice Department, seen by the newspaper.

Security expert Gary Miller said the offer was made in August 2017 to his employer at the time, California-based company Mobileum, which provides security services to cellular companies.

Miller said that the NSO officials involved were trying to gain access to the SS7 network, which is used by cellular companies to route calls and services when their users are traveling outside the US.

Miller said that NSO officials maintained they were seeking access to the SS7 network so that their clients could investigate criminal acts.

The report also said that sources had confirmed to the newspaper that a US Justice Department criminal probe into NSO was underway over the alleged use of the company’s technology to illegally hack phones of journalists, political dissidents and other public figures. There have been previous reports of probes by US authorities last year; it was unclear if this was the same investigation.

California Rep. Ted Lieu, who has expertise on cellular security issues and was approached by Miller with information about the incident last year, sent a criminal referral to the Justice Department in which he supported a probe into the Israeli firm.

Rep. Ted Lieu during a House Judiciary Committee oversight hearing of the Department of Justice on Oct. 21, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Greg Nash/Pool via AP)

In his referral, Lieu argued that “having such access would allow the NSO to spy on vast numbers of cellphones in the United States and foreign countries” and in a separate interview cited by The Washington Post said that the alleged offer of “bags of cash” indicates that a criminal act may have been contemplated.

“I’m a former prosecutor, and you would do cash transactions because you want to hide it,” he said. “When you have telecom companies and you have software companies, normally they don’t engage in cash transactions… It just looks really fishy, and it doesn’t smell right, and that’s why I want the Department of Justice to investigate.”

In a statement released by NSO and cited by The Washington Post, NSO said that it had “never done any business with” Mobileum, and that it “does not do business using cash as a form of payment.” It also said is not aware of any investigation being carried out by the Justice Department.

A spokesperson for NSO co-founder Omri Lavie, who Miller pointed to as the individual who used the phrase “bags of cash,” rejected the allegations.

“Lavie has no recollection of using the phrase ‘bags of cash,’ and believes he did not do so. However if those words were used they will have been entirely in jest,” the spokesperson said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Omri Lavie (Screen grab/Calcalist)

According to Mobileum chief executive Bobby Srinivasan, the company “does not have — and has never had — any business relationship with NSO Group.”

The report came hours after Israel’s police force admitted that it had found evidence that officers conducted electronic surveillance of Israeli citizens without receiving proper judicial oversight, reversing an earlier denial of such claims.

A bombshell report in mid-January claimed that law enforcement regularly utilized the NSO Group’s Pegasus hacking spyware against Israeli civilians without court approval, allegations that the police initially denied.

But in a statement Tuesday, police noted that during a secondary investigation, “additional findings were discovered that change the state of affairs in certain aspects.”

Israel’s Justice Ministry, which was not aware of the illegal use of the program by the police, said it would examine the incident and look into the parties who were involved in approving and using the program illegally.

Pegasus 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.

In an extensive interview screened on Israel’s Channel 12 news on Saturday, NSO’s CEO Shalev Hulio asserted that many of the most serious claims made against the company were untrue, said its software had been created to battle terrorism and serious crime, and rejected Pegasus’s image as a tool mainly used to suppress freedoms around the world. He also expressed “ourage” that NSO is on a US blacklist.

Amy Spiro contributed to this report.

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