Report: Israel pushing US to remove scandal-ridden NSO Group from blacklist

After initially refusing to assist controversial Israeli spyware firm, Jerusalem said lobbying Biden administration on its behalf, arguing it should be given chance to reform

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)
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)

Israel is reportedly pushing the Biden administration to remove the Herzliya-based spyware firm NSO Group from a US government blacklist. The company has been under fire over its alleged use by authoritarian regimes to carry out human rights abuses.

The US Department of Commerce added NSO Group to its Entity List last November, blocking it from acquiring US technology. This came months after bombshell investigative reporting revealed that Hungary, India, Mexico, Morocco and Saudi Arabia had been among the firm’s clients, using its software for dubious purposes.

The US justified its decision last week, claiming that NSO Group supplies “spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics, and embassy workers.”

On Wednesday, the Axios news site reported that while the Israeli government initially pushed back against NSO’s request for it to lobby the Biden administration on its behalf, it has since been convinced to assist the firm. The report cited three unnamed US and Israeli officials.

“We told the US that they can’t destroy NSO and that several bad clients don’t mean the company’s products and capabilities are no longer needed,” a senior Israeli official said, adding that the Biden administration should be more clear about what the cyber firm needs to reform and give it a chance to do so.

NSO has hired a pair of US law firms to help with its legal battle and has submitted a request to the Commerce Department to appeal the listing, according to Axios. A hearing on the matter hasn’t taken place but contacts between NSO and the Commerce Department continue.

US President Joe Biden meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in the Oval Office at the White House, on August 27, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Sarahbeth Maney-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

Two of the officials — one Israeli and one American — told Axios that the US government was considering Israel’s request on behalf of NSO Group, but a third US official denied that this was the case.

A US official told Axios that the White House would not interfere in the appeal process.

Days after the Commerce Department decision, NSO’s CEO penned a letter directly to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, asking for his support in fighting the Biden administration’s decision.

Shalev Hulio warned that the blacklisting will significantly damage his organization financially and hurt its reputation, arguing this could result in hundreds of workers needing to be fired.

Intervention by the Israeli government “would be a basic condition” of reversing the US decision, Hulio wrote.

The firm’s flagship spyware, 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.

The Israeli firm has faced a torrent of international criticism but insists its product is meant only to assist countries in fighting crime and terrorism.

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