NSO Chairman Quits as Cyber Firm Reels From Israeli Police Scandal

NSO’s Pegasus spyware was reportedly used by Israeli police to snoop on mayors and protesters without warrant, but chairman says he’s leaving for other reasons

Omri Zerachovitz
Omri Zerachovitz
The offices of Israeli cyber-offensive firm NSO group, in the south of Israel, in August.
The offices of Israeli cyber-offensive firm NSO group, in the south of Israel, in August.Credit: Sebastian Scheiner/AP
Omri Zerachovitz
Omri Zerachovitz

The chairman of NSO Group, the Israeli offensive cyber firm known for its infamous Pegasus spyware, has announced Tuesday he is stepping down after less than two years.

The news that Asher Levi is stepping down came on the heels of a string of reports published in Israel over the past week, which revealed that the Israel Police had also purchased the Pegasus spyware system. According to the report by Tomer Ganon in the financial daily Calcalist, Israel Police used Pegasus to collect intelligence for investigative purposes, with no legal oversight, targeting protest leaders in the anti-Netanyahu demonstration movement, as well as mayors suspected of corruption.

Announcing his departure, however, Asher Levi said he was leaving NSO for other reasons: Levy says that he was appointed by Novalpina Capital, a VC fund that had purchased control of NSO but has since been bought out by Berkeley Research Group.

“The fund brought me in in 2020. About five months later it was replaced by BRG, and I told them I wish to finish my role as I was not appointed by them," according to Levi.

NSO is currently facing what is arguably its biggest crisis to date. The news of the misuse of its technology by Israeli law enforcement is only the latest in a string of scandals threatening the company’s future.

NSO was blacklisted by the U.S. Department of Commerce after Apple discovered that eleven U.S. State Department Officials in Uganda were targeted by a client of NSO’s a few months ago. This is resulted in the resignation last November of NSO’s CEO Itzik Benbenisti after only two weeks in the role.

Calcalist also reported on Monday that a number of other companies that are owned by NSO have now turned to the courts amid fears the company is about to default. The firms say they can no longer pay salaries as NSO’s CEO Shalev Hulio is trying to get them to cover NSO’s debts. The firms, among them the drone firm Convexum, claim they are defensive firms and are asking the courts to intervene.

NSO Chairman Asher Levy is stepping downCredit: Ilan Assayag

The Calcalist report from last week said that police has been using NSO spyware on a list of targets since 2013. 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.

Last week, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced a probe into police use of NSO spyware against Israelis. Mendeblit informed Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai that he would be forming a panel to conduct the probe. The police have acknowledged use of the spyware after the report, but said a warrant was given by a court before each instance.

On Monday, Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev instructed his staff to examine the possibility of revising the rules that regulate wiretapping and phone searching of suspects. "The existing legal regulations are old," Bar-Lev said, mentioning rapid technological advancement as the main cause "in case a revision is required."

Bar-Lev, whose ministry oversees the police, told Channel 12 news Saturday that all the reports, "except for the fact that the Israel Police used advanced technology," are untrue. "The central claim that the police are illegally spying is not true," he emphasized.

The Pegasus spyware allows its operators to remotely access mobile phones infected with the software. Sold to intelligence and law enforcement agencies across the world, the spyware exploits security vulnerabilities in Android and iPhone operating systems to gain access to the device's contents – from messages to photos. The program also enables remote activation of the phone’s camera and microphone, without the victim's knowledge.

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