Report: U.K. Government to Host Controversial Israeli Spyware Firm NSO at Trade Fair

Company faces a number of lawsuits and increasing scrutiny for its role in the abusive surveillance of human rights activists and journalists worldwide

A man reads at a stand of the NSO Group Technologies at the annual European Police Congress in Berlin, Germany, February 4, 2020
HANNIBAL HANSCHKE/ REUTERS

Israeli NSO Group, which has been in the spotlight for selling software used to spy on individuals by repressive governments, has been given a spot at a private security fair run the U.K. government, British daily The Guardian reported on Thursday.

The Security and Policing trade fair, organized by the U.K. Home Office, is a free event aimed at professionals within the security field. Guests' identities will be kept secret until the fair opens in early March, but attendees are mostly public order and safety officials there to shop for the latest in surveillance, crowd control and protection technology. They include first responders, border security and intelligence agencies.

Typically, the British governmenent hosts 60 foreign delegations, The Guardian report says, among them countries with a problematic human rights record, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE, Oman, Qatar and Hong Kong.

Senior British officials will be on hand to network in dedicated Government Zones. Exhibitors are also given an opportunity to mingle with senior U.K. officials during a networking event, promotional material says. 

A woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, in Herzliya.
Jack Guez/AFP

"Security clearance does not guarantee entrance," the registration process notes. At the 2019 edition, a Labour MP for a progressive constituency in the southern city of Brighton, Lloyd Russell-Moyle, was refused entry, a 2019 Vice report, which also detailed the kind of products exhibited at the secretive fair, revealed. 

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 for a whopping $1 billion.

NSO's dealings have always been shrouded in secrecy and subject to scrutiny. The group was already at an exhibitor at the fair in 2019, but it has since come under intense and growing criticism for its role in several high-profile cases of abusive surveillance of human rights activists and journalists worldwide. 

The company sells a product called Pegasus, 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.

It has been linked to political surveillance in Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, according to University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which researches digital surveillance, security, privacy and accountability.

It was alleged to have played a major role in tracking and attracting Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi to his country's consulate in Istanbul, where he was brutally murdered. 

The company is also being sued in multiple instances and countries, including in Israel, by individuals for allegedly hacking into their personal devices, and by tech giant Facebook for allegedly facilitating the targeting of 1,400 individual accounts of its subsidiary messaging application, WhatsApp.

Activists and journalists protest after a report that their smartphones had been infected with spying software sold to the government to fight criminals and terrorists in Mexico City, June 23, 2017
Carlos Jasso/ REUTERS

It is also the subject of a lawsuit by international advocacy group Amnesty International, which alleges that the company attempted to hack into one of their employees' smartphone. Amnesty published a comprehensive 20-page report about the accusation. 

Last week, Reuters revealed that the FBI was also looking into NSO's role in hacking U.S. residents and companies. 

Defense sales are subject to the Israeli government's approval. NSO was recently reported to be poaching high-ranking government employees, including a former chief of staff at the Defense Ministry, Sharon Shalom. It was also in advanced negotiation to hire Israel's chief military censor, Brig. Gen. Ariella Ben-Avraham.

The spot granted to NSO by the U.K. government highlights the close links the group, and the cyber-surveillance industry as a whole, keeps with governments worldwide.