Israeli Spyware Company NSO Names Tech Executive as Chairman

Asher Levy, former CEO of Orbotech, vows to deepen controversial firm’s commitment to ethical policies

Amitai Ziv
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The logo of the Israeli NSO Group company on a building where they had offices in Herzliya, Israel, Thursday, August 25, 2016.
The logo of the Israeli NSO Group company on a building where they had offices in Herzliya, Israel, Thursday, August 25, 2016.Credit: Daniella Cheslow,AP
Amitai Ziv

NSO, the controversial Israeli cyberattack company said Tuesday it had named the former CEO of Orbotech as its chairperson, a job that had been empty for four years.

The appointment of Asher Levy is an unusual one for NSO, which generally fills its upper ranks with people from a national security background. Levy’s career has been in the high-tech industry, capped by the top job at Orbotech, a maker of semiconductor-manufacturing equipment. Orbotech was one of Israel’s biggest high-tech companies from 2013 until its sale last year to the U.S. company KLA-Tencor for $3.4  billion.

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Levy has a bachelors degree in industrial engineering and management from Ben-Gurion University, a masters in business administration from Tel Aviv University and has completed a management program at Harvard Business School. His pay package at Orbotech in 2019 was $7.2 million.

Privately held NSO has been without a chairman since Avigdor “Yanush” Ben-Gal, a retired general, died in 2016. The decision to appoint Levy was apparently made several months ago. He assumed the post on April 1. Levy is also chairman at Landa Digital Printing, a maker of computerized printing devices.

“We are confident that Levy’s rich managerial experience and his achievements in the business world will make an important contribution to our growth and development,” said NSO CEO Shalev Hulio, confirming reports of Levy’s appointment. 

“Right now the company has shown its ability to innovate and act quickly with the development of an analytical tool to help decision makers cope with the spread of the coronavirus and enable the economy to return to normal without violating privacy [rights],” he said.

The tool Hulio referred to a defense ministry program in the making to grade citizens on their likelihood of spreading the coronavirus using data collected by the Shin Bet secret service. The Justice Ministry has expressed concerns about the program due to NSO’s participation.

NSO’s Pegasus 3 software has been linked to unsavory incidents by governments’ allegedly abuse of its smartphone-hacking technology to spy on journalists and regime opponents in various countries. Its technology was also implicated in the 2018 murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. 

The NSO coronavirus tool, based on the same tracking technology used in national security applications, can retrieve data going back 14 days and determine whether a patient had contact with another person for more than 15 minutes. Unlike its spyware, the company’s coronavirus system doesn’t collect data but analyzes it.

Levy said in a statement that he intended to work with management to continue developing additional counter-terrorism solutions through organic growth, acquisitions and mergers.

In a move apparently aimed at expanding NSO’s capabilities beyond hacking software, NSO said in February that it would spend $60 million in cash for the Israeli startup Convexum that uses cybersecurity to intercept drones.

Noting that NSO had adopted the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights , Levy said “I intend to continue embedding these ethical policies and corporate responsibility in the company’s day-to-day work and assist its excellent management and employees in making the world a safer place.”

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