Israeli Spyware Firm Vows Transparency After Rights Groups Claim It’s Not Acting in ‘Good Faith’

Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron
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A man reads at a stand of the NSO Group Technologies, February 2020.
A man reads at a stand of the NSO Group Technologies, February 2020.Credit: Hannibal Hanschke/ REUTERS
Oded Yaron
Oded Yaron

The Israeli hackers-for-hire firm NSO Group promised it would publish a transparency report starting this June. The announcement from last week comes after a coalition of human rights groups published an open letter to the company and its investors calling out NSO for failing to comply with human rights disclosure practices.

The letter, written by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Access Now and the Committee to Protect Journalists, among others, was sent to the spy firm’s owner Novalpina Capital and noted “concerns with NSO Group’s involvement in documented spyware abuses and its failure to respect the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.”

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According to the groups, in previous communications with human rights organizations and officials, Novalpina Capital and NSO made “commitments regarding NSO Group’s compliance” with the aforementioned UN principles, which include a disclosure framework allowing oversight.

“Many of these promises remain outstanding and unaddressed. Further, information that could be made public - even when taking into consideration Israeli law - has not been. The totality of these omissions and outstanding questions and concerns suggest Novalpina Capital and NSO Group have not engaged in good faith when it comes to respect for human rights.”

In response, NSO said in a statement on its website that it would publish a transparency report in June.

“Transparency is a necessary pillar of good corporate governance,” the company wrote, mentioning the UN guiding principles. The report in June, they said, would “analyze the effectiveness of the extensive policies and procedures we have implemented through the course of the last two years."

“In that period of time, we have undertaken a number of steps to set a new standard for transparency in our sector, and we have directly offered to work together with several non-governmental organizations to consider implementing additional best-practices.”

Shalev Hulio, co-founder and CEO of the NSO Group, which now involved in a massive suit with Facebook, which is suing them for hacking into WhatsAppCredit: AMMAR AWAD/Reuters

According to the statement, NSO “will continue to work with leading human rights and compliance experts around the world to fulfill this mission.”

Haaretz reported at the end of March that NSO is eying an initial public offering and that its CEO, Shalev Hulio, may step down. Hulio, who founded the offensive cyber technology firm known for its Pegasus software, informed employees at a pre-Passover reception that if he resigned as CEO, he would stay on in some other capacity.

Pegasus is designed to break into mobile phones, bypass detection and mask its activity. The malware infiltrates phones to extract personal and location data and surreptitiously control the smartphone’s microphones and cameras.

In February 2019, NSO raised funds based on a billion-dollar company valuation, at which time Hulio was quoted as saying, “We can reach a valuation of 5 to 10 billion within a few years.”

Facebook is suing the NSO Group in U.S. federal court for allegedly targeting users of its encrypted messaging service WhatsApp with Pegasus spyware. A coalition of the world’s leading technology corporations, including Microsoft, Google, Cisco and LinkedIn, have filed an amicus brief in support of Facebook.

Citizen Lab, which is based at the University of Toronto, has claimed that NSO may have hacked the phones of dozens of human rights activists around the world as well as journalists from Qatar-based Al-Jazeera television. An international investigative journalism collaborative organized by Forbidden Stories recently also suggested that the firm’s technology may have also reached drug cartels in Mexico after it was sold to local police forces. NSO denied the allegations.

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