Israel Tries to Limit Fallout from the Pegasus Spyware Scandal

In other words, it would not be unreasonable for the French intelligence services to assume that there was a measure of Israeli spying on France involved here, weather or not the Moroccan intelligence services, which operated the Pegasus spyware and did the actual tracking and monitoring of high-level French officials, were fully aware of that or not.

Israeli sources said that Macron had told Bennett, in a polite but pointed language, that the close security, intelligence, and diplomatic cooperation between France and Israel may come under questioning if this case were not treated seriously by the Israeli government.

Macron implied that one manifestation of such seriousness would be the tightening by the Israeli Ministry of Defense of its controls of export licenses granted to the NSO Group and other companies operating in the same domain.

Before leaving for Paris, Gantz announced the creation of an interdepartmental commission to “get to know what happened and learn from what has happened.”

Le Figaro notes that Israeli commentators expressed doubts that the NSO Group would be the subject of any meaningful sanctions. The issue, rather, is how the Defense Ministry may impose some restrictions on technology exports – either limiting the technologies available for export, or the type of clients eligible to buy Israeli spyware – but do so without damaging the financial (and, some would suggest, intelligence) benefits the highly regarded Israeli cybersecurity companies bring.

Last week, speaking at an industry forum, Bennett, who himself made millions as a cybersecurity start-up entrepreneur before entering politics, noted that 41 percent of global investments in the cybersecurity sector are invested in Israeli cybersecurity companies.

The NSO Group, for its part, insists it is being wrongly blamed for the irresponsible conduct of some of its clients. The company says it is selling its intrusive spyware to governments so that these governments could better track and monitor terrorists and criminals. The company also says that it has no way to monitor what its clients do with the company’s product – but, the company adds, if “credible evidence” is presented to it about a client misusing its software, then the company shuts it off.

The NSO Group said that in recent years it has either lost or foregone about $300 million for refusing to conclude contracts because of possible human rights violations by potential customers.

The company did not provide any details about these potential customers.

The practices of the NSO Group have come under question before, and the company has experienced internal turmoil, involving board members and management, over how much prudence the company should exercise when considering a sale to iffy clients, and how transparent it should be in letting the public know who its clients are.

The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reports that those on the board who preferred less scrutiny of clients and less transparency have won the day. Haaretz, though, has kept reporting on the company, publishing unflattering stories about clients who were willing to pay the company more than half a million euros so they could use the Pegasus software to spy on a dozen telephones and laptops belonging to opposition figures.

The NSO Group’s secretive ways and its willingness to sell its products to unsavory regimes have not been without consequences for the 200 or so of its employees who are veterans of Unite 8200 (the company has about 800 employees).

In 2019, the IDF informed the NSO Group employees that they would no longer be allowed to do their military reserve service in  Unit 8200 in order to avoid a situation in which they would be “confronted with conflicts of interest.”

The Record reports that, on Wednesday, the Israeli Ministry of Defense announced that officials from several Israeli government agencies have visited the offices of NSO Group. “We can confirm that representatives from the Israeli Ministry of Defense visited our offices,” an NSO spokesperson confirmed to The Record.

“We welcome their inspection,” the NSO Group said.

Israeli news outlet Calcalist cited an anonymous source who said the visits were more of a formal meeting than an in-depth audit of NSO’s documents and computer systems.