SURVEILLANCEPegasus Spyware Maker NSO Is Conducting a Lobbying Campaign to Get Off U.S. Blacklist

By Uri Blau

Published 12 July 2022

The cybersecurity firm has invested heavily in top lobbyists and law firms in an effort to lift restrictions on doing business in America. NSO is hoping the Israeli prime minister will raise the issue with Joe Biden when the two meet this week.

Israeli cybersecurity company NSO Group, the company behind the notorious Pegasus spyware, has been conducting a broad campaign in the United States to get off the U.S. government’s blacklist.

Pegasus is a hacking tool that could be used to vacuum up a phone’s contents remotely without the target having to fall into a phishing trap by clicking on a deceptive link. The spyware can even use the phone to remotely track and record its user.

The Biden administration added NSO to a Commerce Department list of restricted companies last November after a series of investigations revealed that Pegasus had been used by foreign governments against journalists and human rights activists. A forensic analysis from last July, for example, revealed that two people close to journalist Jamal Khashoggi were targeted by the spyware before and after his assassination in October 2018. Khashoggi, an exiled Saudi Arabian journalist and American resident, was murdered in Turkey by Saudi authorities. The NSO Group has said its technology “was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”

NSO has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year in payments to lobbyists, public relations companies and law firms in the U.S., in the hope of reversing the Biden administration’s November decision, according to public records filed under the Foreign Agent Registration Act and conversations with people familiar with the effort. These firms have approached members of the U.S. House and Senate, as well as various media outlets and think tanks across the U.S., on NSO’s behalf.

Companies on the Commerce Department’s blacklist, officially called the “Entity List,” are not completely prohibited from doing business in the U.S. However, they are subject to licensing and other trade restrictions, making it more difficult to conduct business in the country or with Americans. NSO’s business has reportedly suffered since the designation.

NSO is trying to get the matter raised during a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid when the former visits Israel this week. In addition, NSO lobbyists unsuccessfully tried to set up a meeting between representatives of the company and U.S. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, but it did not take place.

Asked for comment, an NSO spokesperson declined to comment on the campaign but “thanked” Shomrim for publishing an article on its efforts, which he described as “supportive.”