Researcher Sico van der Meer of the Clingendael Institute was well aware that there are companies that sell espionage software, even to dubious regimes. Still, he is amazed at the extent to which the Pegasus software from the Israeli company NSO Group has been used to track journalists, politicians and activists.
“We knew that NSO Group’s software was sometimes used by authoritarian governments, but the scale at which it is is really surprising,” says Van der Meer. “And the ease with which the software can be deployed is frightening.”
In some ways, the NSO Group is no different from other start-ups in whatever way Silicon Wadic is called. That is the coastal area in Israel where many start-ups have settled – ‘Wadi’ is an Arabic word for ‘valley’ that is also regularly used in Israel. In many cases this concerns security companies.
Millions of investments from venture capitalists, a shiny building near Tel Aviv, experts trained in the military to become experts in digital security: the NSO Group is ticking the boxes of an Israeli cybersecurity startup. But things are happening behind the mirrored windows of the headquarters that cannot bear the light of day, according to Amnesty International and the journalist collective Forbidden Stories, together with various media organisations.
The company makes software that was used to break into the phones of at least 180 journalists, including reporters from renowned media such as The New York Times, CNN and Reuters, it became clear this week. Activists and politicians were also hacked.
They pretend to sell software and then can’t do anything about it, very naive.
“The NSO Group says it sells technology in the fight against terror and organized crime,” says Marietje Schaake. As a former D66 MEP, now associated with Stanford, she has been involved in the trade in espionage software for years. “But it’s clear that they also target activists, journalists and others. They pretend to sell software and then can’t do anything about it. Very naive.”
The NSO Group’s Pegasus software is powerful: as a government you can hack into telephones and then intercept telephone conversations, text messages, e-mails and other activities on a smartphone. This can often even be done on new phones, with the latest software, and without the victims having to take any action.
NSO says: quarter billion in sales declined verkopen
The software is therefore the holy grail for police and investigative services, and is worth an enormous amount of money. It is therefore secret services, police services and armies that purchase the services of NSO. The company has 60 customers in 40 countries.
At the same time, the company emphasizes that it does not deliver to all countries: it has allegedly refused $250 million in sales in recent years due to the risk of human rights violations. It is said to have a list of 55 countries it refuses to do business with. The Israeli government must also approve a sale, because the software is seen as a weapon.
Yet Morocco, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Hungary, among others, are said to use the espionage software: countries where freedom of the press and the judiciary are under pressure, among other things.
‘International discussion welcome’
“I hope Israel is forced to curb the rampant sale 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 everyone here from becoming a victim.”
In any case, it is a dilemma: investigation and intelligence services, also in the Netherlands, sometimes want to monitor someone’s telephone for legitimate reasons, too. “This kind spyware may be useful if security services can use it to solve terrorists and criminals,” says Van der Meer. “But in some countries the distinction between terrorists and political opponents is less clear.”
A good reason to think about this internationally, thinks Van der Meer. “Can we come up with rules for this? And can they be enforced? Or has a monster been created that can no longer be tamed?”