Controversial Israeli Cyberattack Firm NSO Adds Lieberman Ally to Its Arsenal

Sharon Shalom to head global policy apparatus, after leaving post at Defense Ministry, which has to green-light the firm's exports

Sharon Shalom, former chief of staff at the Defense Ministry under ex-Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who has now joined the Israeli cyber-surveillance and spyware company NSO Group Technologies
Sharon Shalom, former chief of staff at the Defense Ministry under ex-Minister Avigdor Lieberman. Shalom is to serve as a consultant at NSO Group Technologies.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Sharon Shalom, a former chief of staff at the Defense Ministry under then Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has joined Israeli cyber-surveillance and spyware company NSO, as an outside consultant dealing with global policy.

NSO has recently been in the headlines due to charges that its technology has been used to commit abuses against human rights activists and journalists worldwide.

Shalom stepped down from his post at the ministry in August after three years in the job. He remained at his post for eight months after Lieberman's resignation, despite the animosity between his former boss and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Shalom had followed Lieberman from the foreign ministry, where he occupied a similar position.

As a confidant of the Yisrael Beiteinu chairman, Shalom was involved in the so-called straw companies case around a decade ago. The police claimed at the time that millions of shekels were laundered through a company called M.L.1, managed by Shalom, and that those funds were subsequently channeled to the firm's owner, Lieberman’s daughter Michal Lieberman. However, no charges were filed in the wake of the investigation.

NSO, which specializes in mobile applications, is among the world’s largest and most active cyberattack companies. In February 2019, company founders Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavi, together with the European private equity fund Novalpina, bought the company back according to a market value of $1 billion.

The company is known among other things for developing the Pegasus spyware, which targets and accesses information in cellphones. Rights groups have condemned the sale of its powerful technology to dictatorships, alleging its use against innocent civilians and opposition figures around the world.

NSO Group Technologies' offices in Herzliya. In the headlines due to charges that its spyware has been used to commit abuses against human rights activists and journalists.Credit: Daniella Cheslow/AP

Because of the nature of its work, NSO must get Defense Ministry approval in order to export its products. In leaving a job at the ministry and taking up a post at this company, Shalom is crossing the line, as it were, from the supervisor to the supervised, following a long tradition in Israeli government and industry.

Earlier this month it was reported that Brig. Gen. Ariella Ben-Avraham, Israel’s chief military censor, was in advanced negotiations to join NSO, and has asked to resign her post.

NSO is thus currently waging legal wars on several fronts, from California to Cyprus to Israel. Amnesty International has asked the Tel Aviv District Court to suspend the firm’s export license after phones belonging to its own activists were hacked. The court recently said it would hear the case in camera, granting a Defense Ministry request for secrecy.

In December 2018, the Montreal-based Saudi Arabian dissident Omar Abdulaziz filed a lawsuit in Israel against NSO, claiming its technology had helped the Saudi government listen in on his conversations with the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a friend of Abdulaziz. And in October, Facebook sued NSO in San Francisco for allegedly hacking into WhatsApp, the popular messaging platform owned by the U.S. social-media giant. Facebook suspended the Facebook accounts of NSO employees, whereupon they countersued the California-based company.

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