The founder and CEO of NSO Group, the notorious Israeli hacking company with customers around the world, appeared on the US current affairs programme 60 Minutes on Sunday night to defend the use of his company’s tools in hacking and spying on lawyers, journalists, and minors when the country’s customers determine the ends justify the means.
Founded in 20018, NSO Group has reportedly sold hacking tools to dictators including those in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and across Central Asia—a group of decision-makers whose track record includes numerous examples of human rights abuses and oppression of dissent. NSO’s tools have been directly involved in the arrest of human rights activists and, in Mexico at least, spying on lawyers and journalists in an effort to catch the drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
“In order to catch El Chapo, for example, they had to intercept a journalist, an actress, and a lawyer,” NSO Group founder Shalev Hulio told 60 minutes. “Now, by themselves, they are not criminals, right? But if they are in touch with a drug lord and in order to catch them, you need to intercept them, that’s a decision an intelligence agency should get.”
Hulio’s company, worth hundreds of millions of dollars, first made global headlines in 2016 when its tools were used by the authoritarian government of the UAE in order to spy on Ahmed Mansoor, an award-winning human rights activist. The company has never fully addressed the spying; Mansoor currently sits, untried and unable to regularly contact his family, in an unidentified prison somewhere in the UAE on charges of criticising the UAE government.
The spotlight did not dissuade the company. Instead, it served as an advertisement to other authoritarian governments about NSO Group’s exceptional ability to hack into new iPhones, a highly valued capability. Observers at companies like the mobile security firm Lookout and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab saw NSO Group’s footprint grow to dozens of new countries, a strong indication that the company’s sales department was busier than ever.
“Selling this technology to those who would spy on journalists represents a major threat to human rights and press freedom worldwide, especially in light of the fact that NSO sells its technologies to countries, like Saudi Arabia and Mexico, where journalists are arrested and routinely murdered,” Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, told Gizmodo by email. “When you include Citizen Lab’s and Amnesty International’s research on a Saudi Arabian government operator, there are now 11 publicly-reported cases of journalists and civic media targeted with Pegasus spyware. In the case of Mexican targets, these were not friends or confidants of the drug cartels—these were investigative journalists reporting on the drug cartels, including two colleagues and the widow of a journalist who was murdered in a cartel-linked hit.”
NSO Group’s tools, most famous of which is its Pegasus spyware, have also been used to spy on minors. In a defence, Hulio raised a hypothetical scenario in which intelligence agencies could have stopped 9/11 by spying on Osama Bin Laden’s teenage son. It is an incredible act of contortion on the part of Hulio: The actual child who NSO Group’s tools spied on was the child of a journalist, not a terrorist.
“I only say that we are selling Pegasus to prevent crime and terror,” Hulio said on Sunday
I spoke to Mansoor leading up to his 2017 arrest. He described a previous arrest at the hands of the UAE’s secret police in which he spent eight months in prison for, again, criticising the country’s unelected leaders. Mansoor told me that when he was released from prison that time, his children cried because they did not recognise their father after he came out of prison underweight.
There is virtually no transparency around how NSO Group sells its weapons. Although the firm’s founder was on TV arguing it has a “three layer” approval process including the Israeli Ministry of Defence and their own ethics committee, both are opaque and essentially invisible from the outside. Additionally, neither has said anything about the accusations of abuses by NSO’s customers except when the Ministry of Defence unceremoniously denied an Amnesty International demand to revoke NSO Group’s export license.
In 2017, after UAE was caught using NSO Group’s spyware against Mansoor, the activist was arrested and eventually sentenced to 10 years in prison.
When Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi was murdered last year, NSO Group was accused in a lawsuit of spying on Khashoggi’s friends and colleagues in order to surveil him, but not Khashoggi himself. In Sunday’s 60 Minutes episode, Hulio denied that the firm’s tools were used to hack into Khashoggi’s phone—which, again, is not the accusation in court. For a company that seems to be increasingly comfortable in the spotlight, it was a well-practised little public relations move that is unrelated to reality.
The company is being sued by Montreal, Canada-based Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, a Khashoggi collaborator who spoke with the now deceased journalist frequently by messenger app. Abdulaziz claims NSO’s tools were used to hack his phone and, through him, spy on Khashoggi’s conversations.
When asked by journalist Lesley Stahl if NSO Group’s tools were used to spy on Khashoggi’s friends, colleagues, and fellow activists, Hulio would not comment. Asked if NSO Group had sold surveillance software to the Saudis for $55 million (£41.5 million), Hulio grinned widely, his face grew red, the executive laughed and said, “don’t believe newspapers.” He declined to comment on “specific customers.”
NSO, which hired a PR agency on full-time retainer, has received no apparent punishment from Israeli regulators who have to approve all sales. They did show the 60 Minutes cameras that their offices have video games and exercise classes, but they would not show employees’ faces.
Hulio claimed his software was responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives. An unnamed Western intelligence official reportedly told CBS, which airs 60 Minutes, that the company is a game changer in the world of intelligence gathering. He would not, however, specifically answer charges of misuse, lack of transparency or abuse by potential customers.
NSO Group is now called Q, a winking reference to the gadget-maker serving James Bond and also, not coincidentally, a supremely difficult-to-Google brand name.
Featured image: Screenshot: 60 Minutes (Twitter)