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Israeli govt officials visit NSO Group office to investigate abuse of Pegasus spyware on same day as France-Israel meeting

Since the French President was among those listed as potential targets of surveillance, the Israeli government rushed to ensure that its diplomatic ties were not affected. 

Several government officials visited the office of the NSO Group on Wednesday, according to a statement from Israel’s Ministry of Defense. The officials were investigating revelations brought forth by news reports that the firm’s surveillance technology was used to target journalists, activists, politicians, and business executives, among others.

NSO Group is responsible for the development of Pegasus, a military-grade spyware that can hoover information on mobile phones like location data, e-mails, contacts, instant messages, as well as take control of the microphone and camera. The spyware is sold only to governments and their agencies, according to its website

However, a consortium of 17 news organisations led by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, accessed a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers believed to be potential targets of NSO Group’s clients. Their investigation revealed that at least 37 phones, of which 10 were Indian, contained clear signs of being infected by Pegasus. (It must be noted the appearance of a number on the leaked list does not mean it was subject to an attempted or successful hack.)

Why it matters? The Israeli government has rushed to contain the fallout from the Pegasus revelations in order to ensure its diplomatic ties are not adversely affected. The phone number of French president Emmanuel Macron, among several other heads of state, was reportedly on the leaked list prompting him to order a probe while calling on Israeli PM Naftali Bennett to “ensure that the issue was being taken seriously.”

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Details on the nature of the visit

Israel’s Defense Ministry did not elaborate on the nature of the team’s visit and was tight-lipped about its plans to investigate the company. “At this stage, I cannot elaborate beyond the phrasing of the statement,” a Defense Ministry spokesperson said.

The team which visited the office consisted of representatives from the Defense Ministry, Foreign Ministry, Justice Ministry, Mossad, and Military Intelligence to understand the potential security, diplomatic, and legal consequences of Pegasus, according to a news report.

Alongside the NSO visit, the Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz went to Paris on Wednesday to placate the French regarding the potential surveillance of the French president using Pegasus. 

A Reuters report stated that Gantz met with his French counterpart, Florence Parly with whom he shared some initial findings on NSO. The French government spokesman Gabriel Attal had informed the media that Parly planned to question Gantz about “the knowledge the Israeli government had about the activities of NSO clients.” He added that Parly also wanted to know the measures taken to prevent such “misappropriations.”

What were the reactions to the visit? 

In a statement to MIT Technology Review, NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio confirmed that a team had indeed visited its office. 

“I believe it’s very good that they are checking, since we know the truth and we know that the list never existed and is not related to NSO.” he was quoted as saying. 

He asserted his company’s initial denial that the leaked data “has no bearing on the list of the customers’ targets of Pegasus.”

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Not everyone was satisfied with the visit as is evident in a tweet put out by Ronald Deibert, the director of The Citizen Lab: “This might be a welcome development were or not for the fact that the Israeli MoD already undertakes “inspections” of NSO as part of export licensing requirements (around which there is zero transparency). You don’t need to be Shakespeare to recognize theatre when you see it.” The Citizen Lab had uncovered the Pegasus intrusion in 2019 by carrying out a forensic analysis

What does the Israeli law say on cyber security exports?

The Israeli defense ministry, in a statement earlier, had said that Israel only permits companies to export cyber security products to “government figures only for legal purposes and to prevent and investigate crimes and to combat terrorism. And this is dependent upon commitments regarding the end use/user from the purchasing country, which must abide by these conditions.”

Under a 2007 Israeli law, companies looking to sell cyber security-related products must receive export licenses from the Defense Ministry’s Defense Export Controls Agency, which is required to include “considerations regarding the end user or the end use,” but does not expressly forbid arms sales to human rights violators. 

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