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Pegasus maker slams criticism, but concedes 'some mistakes'

By Harinder Mishra
January 30, 2022 16:41 IST
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Israel's embattled cyber tech company NSO Group has denied wrongdoing as it called criticism of its sale of Pegasus spyware programme to non-democratic countries 'hypocritical', comparing the surveillance technology to military weapons systems being sold by others, amid mounting allegations that software was misused globally, including in Israel.

Illustration: Dominic Xavier/Rediff.com

An undeterred Chief Executive Officer of NSO Group, Shalev Hulio, in an interview to Israeli Channel 12 on Saturday, strongly defended the company's operations, though he also conceded that some 'mistakes' may have happened over the years.

"I absolutely sleep soundly at night," Hulio told the Channel's interviewer when asked if he can do so amid so much worldwide criticism.

 

Hulio's interview came a day after a New York Times report on Friday claimed that India bought Pegasus spyware as part of a $2 billion defence deal with Israel in 2017, triggering a major controversy with the Opposition alleging that the government indulged in illegal snooping that amounted to 'treason'.

"There is not one country we've sold to, not one, that the US does not sell to, or that Israel doesn't sell to. So it's a bit hypocritical to say it's okay to sell F-35s and tanks and drones, but it's not okay to sell a tool that collects intelligence," Hulio said, defending the company's position.

He also pointed out that out of almost 90 clients that turned to them for the technology, they sold only to around 40 as per laid down norms.

In reaction to the blacklisting of the company by the US Department of Commerce in November, the company's senior most executive called it an "outrage" that he hopes will be lifted soon.

"Our technology has over the years helped the interests and national security of the United States quite a bit," he claimed.

"I think the fact that a company like NSO is on [a US blacklist] is an outrage. I'm sure we'll be taken off that list. I have no doubt."

The NSO Group and its controversial Pegasus technology, which has grabbed attention of governments and people worldwide with allegations of misuse in India as well, was blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce for acting 'contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US' last year in November.

Israel distanced itself from the controversy triggered by the blacklisting of the NSO Group after allegations of illegal use of its Pegasus spyware to target government officials, activists and journalists globally, saying it is a private company and it has nothing to do with the policies of the Israeli government.

In India, a row had erupted last year over Pegasus allegedly being used for targeted surveillance in India. An international investigative consortium had claimed that many Indian ministers, politicians, activists, businessmen and journalists were potentially targeted by the software.

The Indian government, however, had dismissed allegations of any kind of surveillance on its part on specific people.

Last October, the Indian Supreme Court set up a three-member independent expert panel to probe the alleged use of Pegasus for targeted surveillance in India, observing the state cannot get a 'free pass' every time the spectre of national security is raised and that its mere invocation cannot render the judiciary a 'mute spectator' and be the bugbear it shies away from.

In his interview, Hulio also denied that Pegasus was used to hack the phone of French President Emmanuel Macron.

He also denied any link between the company's products and the killing of dissent Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Gulf Kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, Turkey.

"It's become something of a national pastime to blame anything that happens on NSO. A large part of the reports are simply untrue, are prejudiced, and it certainly sometimes angers [me] and sometimes frustrates. But in the end, we know the truth," the CEO asserted.

When asked if the NSO Group has made mistakes since its establishment, he said that 'over a period of 12 years it's impossible not to make mistakes, which you learn from', without sharing any details.

However, he also justified the presence of such a technology that can help prevent acts of terror and other serious crimes.

On the recent reports that the Israel Police used Pegasus to spy on civilians, including anti-Benjamin Netanyahu protesters and Israelis not suspected of any crimes, his answer was that he would like to think that they are untrue.

"I, as a citizen, if the things that were written are true, it worries me personally. But as a citizen, I tell you I choose to believe the attorney general, the public security minister and the police chief who say time and again these things never happened," Hulio responded.

With controversies surrounding the company refusing to die down, Israeli Attorney Genera Avichai Mendelbit in January announced to set up a team to probe into alleged misuse of the snooping Pegasus technology by the Israeli police against its own citizens, including those not suspected of crime.

Israel established a committee in July last year to review the allegations of misuse of the NSO group's surveillance software and hinted at a possible 'review of the whole matter of giving licences'.

Hulio, had welcomed the move, saying they would 'be very pleased if there were an investigation so that we'd be able to clear our name'.

He had also claimed that there was an effort 'to smear the whole Israeli cyber industry'.

The NSO executive had also emphasised that his company could not disclose the details of its contracts due to 'issues of confidentiality', but, 'he would offer full transparency to any government seeking more details'.

"Let any state entity come along, any official from any state, and I'll be prepared to open everything up to them, for them to enter, to dig around from top to bottom," Hulio then said.

Israel's defence ministry had in a statement also threatened that if it finds that the NSO Group violated the terms of its export licenses, it will 'take appropriate action'.

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Harinder Mishra
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