Pegasus Project: Israel Will Review Defense Export Regulation After NSO Allegations, Lawmaker Says

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Head of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Ram Ben Barak in the Knesset, earlier this month.
Head of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee Ram Ben Barak in the Knesset, earlier this month.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Israel's parliamentary review panel may recommend changes to defense export policy over high-profile allegations that spyware sold by Israeli cyber firm NSO Group has been abused in several countries, a senior lawmaker said on Thursday.

"We certainly have to look anew at this whole subject of licenses granted by DECA," Ram Ben Barak, head of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, told Israel's Army Radio, referring to the government-run Defense Export Controls Agency.

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Israel has appointed an interministerial team to assess reports published since Sunday following an investigation by 17 media organizations, which said NSO's Pegasus software had been used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists.

World leaders were among those whose phone numbers the news organizations said were on a list of possible targets, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan and Morocco's King Mohammed VI.

NSO has rejected the reporting by the media partners as "full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories". Reuters has not independently verified the reporting.

The Israeli interministerial team "will conduct its checks, and we will be sure to look into the findings and see if we need to fix things here," Ben Barak said.

DECA is within Israel's Defense Ministry and oversees NSO exports. Both the ministry and the firm have said that Pegasus is meant to be used to track terrorists or criminals only, and that all foreign clients are vetted governments.

NSO says it does not know the specific identities of people against whom clients use Pegasus, but that if it receives complaints it can acquire the target lists and unilaterally shut down the software for any clients found to have abused it.

After Army Radio also aired an interview on Thursday with Szabolcs Panyi, a Hungarian journalist who said Pegasus had been found on his cellphone, NSO chief Shalev Hulio vowed to investigate.

"If he was indeed a target, I can assure you already that we will cut off the systems of whoever took action against him, because it's intolerable for someone to do something like this," Hulio told the station.

In keeping with NSO and Defense Ministry reticence about identifying client countries, Hulio stopped short of confirming that Hungary had bought Pegasus. He said NSO has worked with 45 countries and rejected around 90 others as potential clients.

The company has shut down five Pegasus systems for abuse, Hulio said, adding that the software cannot be used against Israeli or U.S. mobile phones.

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