US Blacklists Israeli Cyber-Predator, NSO Group After Digital Privacy NGOs expose NSO's global assaults against human rights, US levies sanctions
The US Commerce Department announced that it was blacklisting the Israeli malware maker, NSO Group, after digital rights NGOs exposed the widespread use of its spyware to target journalists, lawyers and human rights activists in 50 countries. The designation found that the Israeli company had acted “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US.” The US agency said:
“Today’s action is a part of the Biden-Harris administration’s efforts to put human rights at the center of US foreign policy, including by working to stem the proliferation of digital tools used for repression…This effort is aimed at improving citizens’ digital security, combatting cyber threats, and mitigating unlawful surveillance and follows a recent interim final rule released by the commerce department establishing controls on the export, re-export, or in-country transfer of certain items that can be used for malicious cyber activities.”
Israel has cornered much of the world market for such malevolent cyber-tools. Other Israeli companies in this market are Candiru, which was also blacklisted, Circles, Cellebrite, AnyVision, and Psy-Group. Israel’s role in pioneering this invasive, destructive technology is not accidental. It springs from the country’s hostile relations with many of its Arab neighbors; including with Palestinians, both citizens and those living under Occupation. The security state mentality arising from this all enveloping sense of isolation and hostility, turned Israel’s military and intelligence to creating a vast surveillance state. Technology was developed specifically tailored to the need to monitor and, if need be, target those perceived to be enemies.
Once Israel developed this technology domestically, it naturally determined to maximize its value through export. The country is one of the top ten weapons exporters in the world. Over the past decade it has added this mass surveillance technology to its menu of products. Scores of nations, especially those pursuing their own surveillance schemes to preserve their leaders’ domination and control, have flocked to the Israeli companies for solutions.
Only in the past decade have privacy and human rights NGOs begun to recognize the dangers posed by NSO’s flagship product, Pegasus. Their activism came to fruition a few months ago when a coalition of such groups including Amnesty International, Citizen Lab and Forensic Architecture released their groundbreaking study, the Pegasus Papers. It exposed the list of 50,000 individuals whose cell phone numbers were listed as prospective victims of NSO hacks. That, combined with Senate hearings in which Sen. Ron Wyden suggested, despite NSO’s fervent denials, that Pegasus might have targeted US officials. This indeed turned out to be true when the phone target list included Rob Malley, the US envoy to Iran nuclear deal negotiations.
The next step which Democratic lawmakers are urging would be to extend the blacklist designation to American investors, and thus deprive NSO of much needed capital for its expected public stock offering.
This development should considerably strengthen Whatsapp’s lawsuit against NSO, filed after a company client used one of its exploits to spy on 1,400 victims who used the texting app. One of them might have been Jeff Bezos, who was sent a phishing text message via Whatsapp by Saudi intelligence, which led to the exposure of private sexual images. That, in turn, led to his divorce and subsequent marriage to the woman with whom he was having an affair.
The Israeli government has been doing damage control on NSO’s behalf since shortly after the Pegasus Papers were published. Benny Gantz announced with fanfare an official inquiry into the matter. Prime Minister Bennett met at the Climate conference with Emmanuel Macron, whose phone was hacked by Moroccan state security. Israeli officials are attempting to mollify the French by promising that in future the company will not permit Pegasus to target French phones. But this belies the fact that any French official traveling outside France could be targeted, just as Malley was. Nor is there any guarantee that the notoriously mendacious company will honor its commitment. NSO earns such fealty from Israeli officials because it advances state interests along with its own in its surveillance work. So the state owes NSO, just as NSO owes the state in routinely approving its export licenses.
NSO released this statement defending itself, which left me queasy. Not so much for the words themselves which are quite cleverly crafted; but for the discrepancy between them and the real truth:
“We look forward to presenting the full information regarding how we have the world’s most rigorous compliance and human rights programs that are based on the American values we deeply share, which already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts with government agencies that misused our products.”
How does the world’s most rigorous compliance and human rights program permit NSO to sell its wares to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, which in turn uses them to concoct the murder plans against Jamal Khashoggi? How does it sell the surveillance tech to Mexico’s intelligence services, which finds its way to those who murdered a Mexican journalist? Is murder one of those “deeply shared American values?” Is earning tens of millions in fees from kleptocracies like UAE, which in turn use Pegasus to lock up a human rights activist for ten years, an American value? Are beatings of Muslim dissidents by Bengladeshi death squads who exploit Pegasus to target their prey, as American as apple pie?
Thankfully, the Biden administration hasn’t been snowed by this fake rhetoric. It has seen NSO for what it is: a criminal enterprise based on cyber-predation.
Haaretz published this interesting analysis which suggests that NSO as we know it, may be dead. If US investors and banks are prevented from doing deals with it due to its blacklisting, then the company may have no choice but either to drop out of the offensive cyber-attack business, morph into a different company, or possibly reconstitue itself in some new form that permits it to continue what it’s doing now.
22 thoughts on “US Blacklists Israeli Cyber-Predator, NSO Group – Tikun Olam תיקון עולם إصلاح العالم”
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Do you have a list of persons coooerating with this evil enterprise or are employed
? There was mention of Cherie Blair (no surprise) and now Rod Rosenstein as defense lawyer. Also on list as lobbyist in Washington DC Michael Flynn and Anita Dunn. A Who’s Who of prominent figures such as Juliette Kayyem, a Department of Homeland Security official under President Obama; and Franc’s former ambassador to Washington Gérard Araud.
@ Oui: Yes, I listed a number of those names in one of my earlier posts. And NSO has hired a major DC law firm to run political interference/lobby for them. But so far it hasn’t seemed to help them.
The United States sold $175 billion in lethal weapons in FY 2020, and the NSA, down in old Fort Meade, uses even more advanced spyware to spy on friends and enemies alike.
Just a smidgen of hypocrisy, wouldn’t you think?
@ Ted: No, no hypocrisy whatsoever. Our NSA doesn’t sell its wares to goons and thugs around the world to use to kill their citizens exercising their legitimate democratic rights. Nor does this country have a massive industry designed to cater to the whims of these killers, as Israel does.
As for our arms export industry, we are a country 50 times larger in population than Israel with a territory similarly larger. So of course our military has a much larger footprint. But considering the differences, Israel more than makes up for its smallness by the size of its exports, in the top ten worldwide as I noted. PLus, compared to Israel our exports overall are much more varied than Israel’s which are skewed toward all sorts of lethal technologies.
All that being said, I am not defending the aspects of US policy with which I disagree. I don’t endorse our aggression and military adventurism. I oppose it the same way I oppose it when Israelis are the ones doing it.
What the NSA did was illegal, what NSO did wasn’t illegal. Immoral, but not illegal.
The United States government broke the law and lied to the American people. Isn’t that worse?
Breaking the law AND lying about it?
“Our NSA doesn’t sell its wares to goons and thugs around the world to use to kill their citizens exercising their legitimate democratic rights”.
No the United State’s defense industries, including Boeing, sells billions of weapons to thuggish regimes, and you, Richard Silverstein have been buying gas for your car from the same thuggish regime NSO does business with.
Who has blood on their hands?
@ Ted Barber: What the NSA did was “illegal?” What are you talking about. I don’t approve of mass surveillance of any sort, whether American or Israeli. But I’ve never heard anyone say what the NSA did was illegal. And if it was, there have never been any hearings or charges claiming this.
UPDATE: I have done some research and I am wrong about the NSA engaging in illegal acts. But the point is that the US has laws forbidding them and the NSA was found to have violated them by US courts. Israel has no laws whatsoever that regulate the NSO and the only body that can regulate NSO, the defense ministry, refuses to do so. That’s why NSO operates more like a corrupt mafia than a commercial company.
If a company can kill people and what it does is NOT illegal the problem is with the law being inadequate. It certainly does not excuse the act of murder, for which NSO is culpable.
Yup, Boeing and many other US companies sell weapons around the world. And I oppose it completely. But none of them sell weapons to genocidal regimes like Myanmar, Sri Lanka or Phillipines. Israel does. And that’s a crucial difference.
Ah the cynical old hasbara trick: Israel isn’t the only one who does bad things. Everyone does, so no one is at fault.” Not so fast. My responsiblity is not to change the entire world or to critique the faults of every government in the world. I take my responsibility to do that regarding Israel. If you’re so concerned about all the other distractions and diversions you introduced, I suggest you get to it. But I suggest you don’t give a flying f*k about any of it. But your goal is to get lost in a miasma of cynicism. But I won’t let that happen.
You are done in this thread.
israel supreme court sided with nso in their latest victory. they dont need gantz. they use him as marketing rep, wake up people.
they used nso to kill kashoggi. what are you debating boeing, har har, israel sold to china. now that’s marketing. so much so few years back till someone in the us got fed up, it took years meanwhile,
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Given Israel’s current configuration, the ongoing development of ever more totalitarian, intrusive Oppression-Technology (OT) is its vital necessity.
Israel is, therefore, one of the world’s best (i.e. worst) in developing OT.
An international environment willing to support or, at least, tolerate oppression as a way of life is clearly an Israeli interest.
Israel is, therefore, one of the world’s best (i.e. worst) in marketing OT.
International use of Israeli state of the art OT creates dependency on it and, therefore, on Israel’s ongoing maintenance of it, which serves Israel well beyond the money paid for it.
It is, therefore, the world’s democracies’ vital interest to press Israel into changing its current configuration to one not requiring oppression.
Pegasus, and similar software, can be used to fight crime and terrorism.
It is NSO that needs to be constrained by sovereign governments, but especially by Israel.
@ Kareem: Pegasus is hardly ever used to fight crime or terrorism. You’re merely repeating the pablum that NSO peddles to defend itself.
Why would a “sovereign government” client of NSO “constrain” the company? Why would Israel do so? Israel lives off intrusive intelligence gathering targeting its enemies. Why should it constrain such activities? On the contrary, it benefits from it and encourages it.
let’s not forget that they still fight a suit against facebook.
sad it is that rather than do extreme research in fighting ransomwares and the likes they outrun them in malice,
is the israel military industry any better, make a list of the countries that “behave” vs those that dont and let’s see how much more israel sells to. same old same old.
the guys from nso learned while inside the idf. when they left they took with them the expertise in lawlessness programing AND israel army customers list
how many times has the us admonished israel for marketing arms with american design sold to non conforming countries, turkey comes to mind.
just for all to see how israel billionaires act. if you all read the jerusalem post it came out that one of israel biggest grocery stores was selling up to 2000 different items cheaper to ultra religious cities and neighborhoods than to the rest of the imbeciles. and reductions up to 1/3 in prices.
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quote from SLATE
But most of the pressure to act has been on the Israeli government, which could, if it chose, directly block the company from selling its spyware programs to these customers. Instead, Israel has continued to allow the company what appears to be relatively free rein in its dealings with foreign governments. A
ISRAEL MONEY POWER , YEAH`!!!!!!! aipac good job ,
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Not using us$. Theyre mostly done. Most employees will not write nso in their cv whilst applying for new jobs.
NSO, in order to function – needs maybe couple of dozens of employees, if that.
It is not a company size of FB or IBM – it is a small tech co that punches way above its size.
And with no restraints – the new NSO will be able to hire:
You get the point.
When the $$$ doesn’t have to be official anymore – they can do whatever they want.
If there is something I’ve learned – forbidden fruit is even more desired.
Ask former Soviet citizens when their government has tried to impose an internal embargo on alcoholic beverages – the black market has thrived.
Ask consumers of prostitution in the Arab world (where sometimes the punishment for that is stoning or hanging) – they still do it.
Again – you get the point.
I believe, as I previously said – the world has lost this war, thanks to the lefties in the US gov.
It looks good on the news. They probably pat themselves on the bellies – but it makes them even blinder, not to see the real outcome.
What should have happened, if the lefties really care about restraining NSO – is working behind the scene with the Israeli gov to get assurances NSO stops doing a. b. c.
A conspiracy theory: Israelis have asked the US to ban NSO => NSO will have to declare bankruptcy and will officially dismantle => NSO will open under a fake registration to do the things I mention above.
@ Jorge: Let’s see how much is wrong with your comment:
Actually, NSO has 750 employees.
No major company of NSO’s size can function like a Mafia gang. They need access to capital, investors, and permission from governments to sell and use their technology. Once they lose that, they’re toast.
The Israeli government is now trying to work “behind the scenes” to launder NSO’s reputation and save its ass. But with the US decision, I think the effort will be in vain. Your cynicism and nihilism is breathtaking…and typical for Israeli hasbara.
Don’t waste our time with your bullshit.
no israeli would want to live in any of the countries you’ve mentioned, they are too addicted to deluxe and further none of those countries would give them the freedom to show off their deluxe earnings.
so no even if they could work there , their current gloating habits would not let them not by a mile.
Do you have any information about the recent revelation by AlJazeera that there are two Israeli prisoners held outside Israel/Palestine by a group called Freedom Movement (Harakat Alhuria)?
You can delete this comment since it’s not on topic, but please let us know your thoughts and research on this topic.
@ Theo: To the best of my knowledge, the report is a hoax.
remember my words, when i said this is all Gantz and it is personal, here is a small translation of a ynet item from today , and why the us went full steam against nso, the issue with the palestinian hacked also from today, they were all approved by gantz and the proofs presented as terror were based on palestinians hacked fones by nso
in other words, the administration is blaming a thinly veiled hint at the department of defense for harming u.s. national security, after the licences division, afp, was set up in the wake of the falcon intelligence warning planes scandal to china under the nose of the united states,
its all gantz from now as minister and from before when he was chief of staff. what terror is there in israel that needs so much effort and money invested to catch a bunch of imbeciles. at this stage any palestinian planning terror can be considered imbecile. so the declared reason was fake, the government involvement was a fake also initiated by only gantz basically to vaunt and by the same time invest israel money in nso with a possible baksheesh here and there.
so nessim is not such a smoke induced dreamers