NSO’s new CEO steps aside; The crisis surrounding the Israeli cyber company continues

Former Partner CEO Isaac Benbenisti stepped down as CEO of NSO Group on Thursday, a position in which he would have replaced founding CEO Shalev Hulio.

A source close to NSO said Hulio would remain the CEO to help stabilize the company during this uncertain time, and the resignation of Benbenisti, who is already a senior official in NSO’s business division, has yet to be announced.

The decision regarding Benbenisti and Hulio comes after last week’s announcement by the US Department of Commerce to blacklist NSO, a major report this week indicating that the Shin Bet used the technology. by NSO to spy on Palestinian rights activists who allegedly dub themselves as funders of terrorism, a conviction of a Hispanic-Palestinian activist for financing terrorism on Wednesday night, and a growing fight between Israel and the United States over related issues. with Palestinian NSOs and NGOs.

The US Department of Commerce announced last week that it had added cybercrime firms NSO Group and Candiru to its blacklist for engaging in “activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” .

At the same time, France and Israel appeared to have weathered tensions over the alleged attack on French President Emmanuel Macron’s phone using NSO’s Pegasus software, with a bilateral ministerial-level meeting planned this week.

The exhibition booth of the ISRAELI CYBER NSO Group firm is seen at ISDEF 2019, an international defense and national security exhibition held in Tel Aviv in 2019 (credit: KEREN MANOR).

Four companies were added to the list: Israel’s NSO Group and Candiru, Russia’s Positive Technologies, and Computer Security Initiative Consultancy PTE. LTD of Singapore, the department said in a statement.

The US State Department said that the companies smuggled cyber tools used to gain unauthorized access to computer networks, although it later added that it will not sanction NSO in any way, even though it is blacklisted, and will not take any action against any of the host governments of the companies.

The addition of companies to the list, for engaging in activities contrary to the national security of the United States or the interests of foreign policy, means that the exports of their American counterparts are restricted. For example, it makes it much more difficult for US security researchers to sell you information about computer vulnerabilities.

However, from a pure economic perspective, it is more of a PR issue as NSO does not do business in the US.

Media around the world reported on a leaked list of some 50,000 phone numbers in July, which they claimed were targets of NSO’s Pegasus software, used to hack phones.

“NSO regrets the decision, as its technologies do support the national interests and policies of the United States in preventing terrorism and crime, and we will act accordingly to reverse the decision,” the company said in response.

NSO said it was eager to present information that “makes it clear that we have the strictest guidelines in the world and plans to advance human rights that are based on the American values ​​with which we deeply relate, that have already led us to end to our commitments to government agencies that used our products inappropriately. “

Candiru has a lower public profile than NSO and had not issued a response at press time.

Amnesty International responded to the decision by saying: “With this move, the US government has recognized what Amnesty and other activists have been saying for years: NSO Group spyware is a tool of repression that has been used in everyone to violate human rights. This decision sends a strong message to the NSO Group that it can no longer profit from human rights abuses without repercussions. “

“This is also a day of reckoning for NSO Group investors: will they continue to fund a company whose technology has been used to systematically violate human rights?” Amnesty said.

Expanding its comments beyond NSO, Amnesty said: “The threats posed by surveillance technology are bigger than a single company. This dangerous industry is out of control, and this should spell an end to the impunity that spyware companies have enjoyed. We need an immediate global moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology until there is a regulatory framework that complies with human rights. “

Gil Naveh, spokesperson for Amnesty International Israel, added: “This decision shows the complete and utter failure of the Israeli monitoring and accountability systems. Both the Israeli Ministry of Defense and the Israeli courts did not do their job properly of preventing violations. of human rights with the use of Israeli security exports. “

“We call on the Israeli Defense Ministry to immediately stop all NSO activities, and for Israeli systems to hold all those responsible for this outrageous neglect,” he added.

MK Mossi Raz (Meretz) responded, stating: “The US decision regarding NSO was a matter of time. This company not only shames us all over the world and not only entangles Israel in political turmoil, but its actions are also dangerous and damaging and Israel should not sponsor them. “

“I intend to address the Defense Minister and the Prime Minister and demand that they act against NSO as soon as possible,” he said.

After the July NSO convictions and some lost customers and investor push, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett established an investigation of the cyber enterprise led by a combination of the Ministry of Defense, Mossad, the National Security Council, the Ministry of Foreign Relations and others.

Macron demanded explanations from Israel at the time, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz traveled to Paris to clarify that the French president was not being spied on. Meanwhile, Macron prohibited members of his cabinet from meeting with Israeli ministers.

Bennett and Macron recently met at the UN Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, with the former vowing to be more transparent about it. The leaders said they would move forward with close cooperation between their countries.

Last week, NSO seemed determined to launch a rebranding campaign with Hulio making a sideways move to become vice chairman of the company’s board and global president.

Although the details were somewhat confusing, the idea seemed to be to make Benbenisti the new face of the company, while Hulio would focus on driving the business in new areas of mobile and cyber and would likely continue to control important aspects of the company behind the scenes. . .

The change in strategy just a week later appeared to reflect a high degree of flow and fluidity in NSO’s stability and vision for its future.

The July reports came from the Pegasus project, a group of 17 media organizations, which received information from a combination of Amnesty, the University of Toronto Citizens Laboratory and Forbidden Stories, revealed to the public the most damaging information so far. light on the mobile phone hacker known as NSO.

According to reports from July, NSO’s Pegasus hacking malware was found on 37 cell phones out of a list of 65 numbers that were checked against a list of more than 50,000 cell phones that were targeted.

They found that among 1,000 numbers on the list were: at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists, several members of the Arab royal family, and more than 600 politicians and government officials, including cabinet ministers, diplomats and Security officers.

Top officials whose cell phones appear on the list include: Macron, Iraqi President Barham Salih, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and leaders of Pakistan, Egypt and Morocco.

Countries accused of abusing NSO technologies by the reports include: Hungary, India, Mexico, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and others.

The NSO itself had admitted that it had cut at least five government clients who abused its technology to go after the exact type of people on the list above, even if they are not those same people.

An NSO source reportedly leaked to NPR that as a result of the current crisis, the company specifically terminated its contracts with the Saudis and the UAE.

However, further investigation by the Post found that there was very little concrete in these reports to hold onto. Most of what was reported in July did not break new ground but instead added color to previous reports over the years that some of NSO’s customers had abused Pegasus.

Some outlets directly involved in breaking the NSO story have admitted that they do not know who provided the list of 50,000 numbers and cannot attest to its credibility, other than the 37 cell phones where malware was found.

As questions about the list increased, Amnesty gave two messages: not all numbers are from NSO and that the numbers are from NSO clients showing the character of who NSO clients could go to.

The 50,000 cell phone list itself was always problematic for close observers, given that each NSO client is generally limited to a dozen or a few dozen targets and NSO only has around 60 clients.

Lahav Harkov and Reuters contributed to this report.


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