That there are companies that sell spy software, including to dubious regimes, researcher Sico van der Meer at institute Clingendael knew. Still, he amazes the size of the Israeli company NSO Group‘s Pegasus software to track journalists, politicians and activists.
“We knew that NSO Group software was sometimes deployed by authoritarian governments, but the scale on which is really surprising,” says Van der Meer. “And the convenience with which the software can be deployed is frightening.”
In some ways, the NSO Group does not differ from other start-ups in what is also called Silicon Wadi. That is the coastal area in Israel where many start-ups have settled – ‘Wadi‘ is an Arabic word for “valley” frequently used in Israel, too. In many cases, this concerns security companies.
Millions of venture investors, a shiny building near Tel Aviv, experts trained in the military as an expert in digital security: the NSO Group ticks off the boxes of an Israeli cybersecurity startup. But behind the reflective windows of the headquarters, things that cannot bear daylight are happening, Amnesty International and the journalist collective Forbidden Stories, together with various media organizations.
The company creates software that was used to break into phones from at least 180 journalists, including reporters from renowned media such as The New York Times, CNN and Reuters, as it became clear this week. Activists and politicians were also hacked.
A spokesperson for Amnesty International tells DecceIT that there are currently no indications that Dutch people were targeted.
“The NSO Group says to sell technology to combat terror and organised crime,” says Marietje Schaake. As a former D66 MEP, now affiliated with Stanford, she has been engaged in spying software trading for years. “But it’s clear that they‘re also targeting activists, journalists, and others. They pretend to sell software and can’t do anything about it afterwards. Very naive.”
NSO Group‘s Pegasus software is powerful: it lets you break into phones as a government and then intercept phone calls, text messages, emails and other activities on a smartphone. This can often be done even on new phones, with the latest software, and without the victims having to take action.
NSO Says Quarter Billion Sales Rejected
The software is the holy grail for police and investigations, and is worth a huge amount of money. They are secret services, police forces and armies that take the services of NSO. The company has sixty customers across 40 countries.
At the same time, the company does not stress delivering to all countries: it would have refused $250 million in sales in recent years due to the risk of human rights violations. It would have a list of 55 countries it refuses to do business with. The Israeli government also needs to approve a sale because the software is seen as a weapon.
Yet Morocco, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Hungary would use the spy software, including countries where press freedom and judiciary are under pressure.
‘International Discussion Welcome‘
“I hope Israel is forced to control the unbridled sales of this type of software,” says Van der Meer van Clingendael. “And there should be an international discussion about this kind of software to prevent anyone from becoming a victim here.”
Anyway, it’s a dilemma: search and intelligence services, also in the Netherlands, sometimes want to look at someone‘s phone for legitimate reasons as well. “This kind of spyware might be useful if security forces can solve terrorists and criminals,” says Van der Meer. “But in some countries, the distinction between terrorists and political opponents is less clear.”
Van der Meer thinks a good reason to think about this internationally. “Can we think of rules for this? And can they be maintained? Or was a monster created that can’t be tamed anymore?”