Israel has used NSO's spyware as a central pillar of its diplomatic policy in recent years, The New York Times reported Friday, confirming past reports in Haaretz. The report also reveals American agencies like the FBI were in talks to purchase NSO's spyware and were offered a never-before-seen spyware system.
The New York Times investigation revealed that Saudi Arabia, a known client of NSO’s Pegasus spyware, was reauthorized to use the system only after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman called then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Saudis lost access to the Pegasus after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and MBS requested that Netanyahu intervene to have it reinstated. The request was met.
The report also confirms the finding of Haaretz as part of the Project Pegasus global consortium, which found that spyware sales played a key role in Netanyahu’s diplomacy, with NSO signing deals in India, Hungary and Poland in wake of warming ties between the countries and Netanyahu’s Israel.
The former prime minister's spokesperson told the Times that the claim that Netanyahu offered foreign leaders "such systems in exchange for political or other measures is a complete and utter lie.”
In the case of Saudi Arabia, the NYT revealed that after the Saudis lost their right to receive defense exports from the Israeli defense body in charge with oversight of such sales, and they failed to have their license reinstated, the crown prince placed a phone call to Netanyahu who agreed to the request and pushed the body and NSO to renew Riyadh’s access.
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The spyware, the NYT found, was a key part of Israel’s normalization efforts in the Gulf and also played a background role in diplomatic politics taking place regarding the nuclear talks with Iran. Confirming the findings by Amitai Ziv made as part of the Project Pegasus investigation, NSO served as a form of diplomatic currency for Netanyahu.
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Although Israel has no diplomatic relations with Saudi Arabia, and Israelis are forbidden from doing business there, Haaretz revealed that the pursuit of diplomatic relationships facilitated extension deals with between the Kingdom and the Israeli spyware sector.
The company is not alone in selling its spyware to the Saudis, with Quadream and Cellebrite, other Israeli cyber companies, selling spyware there in 2019.
NSO Group has been under intensified scrutiny this year, following mass revelations of its hacking software being deployed against journalists and activists worldwide.
NSO was blacklisted by the Biden administration’s Department of Commerce this year after it was revealed it was used in Africa to spy on U.S. State Department Officials. The move, the NYT revealed, sparked anger and surprise in Israel and in NSO as unbeknownst to the public, Americans had as recently 2019 shown interest in purchasing the system.
According to the NYT’s investigation, despite concerns over the use of Pegasus, American law enforcement agencies had long shown interest in buying the spyware.
The report reveals how interest had been shown in the past by the CIA, the DEA, the Secret Service and even the U.S. military command in Africa. All of these bodies held talks with NSO about purchasing the spyware, despite the existence of a wide array of reports documenting its misuse by clients across the world.
According to the investigation, not only did U.S. agencies look into buying Pegasus, the FBI took things forward and in 2019 even invited NSO to provide them with a demonstration of their spyware’s capabilities. However, due to American fears, the Pegasus system was theoretically unable to target American phones. NSO’s solution was to offer the FBI a new, never-before-seen spyware, called Phantom.
Phantom, a prospect seen by the NYT, offered hacking capabilities without any need for cooperation with local phone networks. Phantom had even received a special permit from Israel’s defense exports oversight body to spy on any American number, with the intention of selling the system to the Americans.
According to the brochure, Phantom could “turn your target’s smartphone into an intelligence gold mine.”
The Americans also paid and arranged for the government of Djibouti to secure a deal for Pegasus.
Just this week, the company's chairman stepped down after less than two years in charge in the midst of a report that Pegasus was used by Israeli Police and new evidence surfaced that a senior official of Human Rights Watch in Beirut was targeted by the spyware.
An Israeli financial daily reported last week that police has been using NSO spyware on a list of targets since 2013. The list includes protest leaders and politicians. It was the first indication that the software was being used against Israelis, with investigations overseen only by the police and without a warrant or court order