“Inside NSO, Israel’s billion-dollar spyware giant”
MIT Technology Review, August 19, 2020
by Patrick Howell O’Neill
“The world’s most notorious surveillance company says it wants to clean up its act. Go on, we’re listening.”
Maâti Monjib speaks slowly, like a man who knows he’s being listened to.
It’s the day of his 58th birthday when we speak, but there’s little celebration in his voice. “The surveillance is hellish,” Monjib tells me. “It is really difficult. It controls everything I do in my life.”
A history professor at the University of Mohammed V in Rabat, Morocco, Monjib vividly remembers the day in 2017 when his life changed. Charged with endangering state security by the government he has fiercely and publicly criticized, he was sitting outside a courtroom when his iPhone suddenly lit up with a series of text messages from numbers he didn’t recognize. They contained links to salacious news, petitions, and even Black Friday shopping deals.
A month later, an article accusing him of treason appeared on a popular national news site with close ties to Morocco’s royal rulers. Monjib was used to attacks, but now it seemed his harassers knew everything about him: another article included information about a pro-democracy event he was set to attend but had told almost no one about. One story even proclaimed that the professor “has no secrets from us.”
He’d been hacked. The messages had all led to websites that researchers say were set up as lures to infect visitors’ devices with Pegasus, the most notorious spyware in the world.
Pegasus is the blockbuster product of NSO Group, a secretive billion-dollar Israeli surveillance company. It is sold to law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world, which use the company’s tools to choose a human target, infect the person’s phone with the spyware, and then take over the device. Once Pegasus is on your phone, it is no longer your phone.
NSO sells Pegasus with the same pitch arms dealers use to sell conventional weapons, positioning it as a crucial aid in the hunt for terrorists and criminals. In an age of ubiquitous technology and strong encryption, such “lawful hacking” has emerged as a powerful tool for public safety when law enforcement needs access to data. NSO insists that the vast majority of its customers are European democracies, although since it doesn’t release client lists and the countries themselves remain silent, that has never been verified.
Monjib’s case, however, is one of a long list of incidents in which Pegasus has been used as a tool of oppression. It has been linked to cases including the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the targeting of scientists and campaigners pushing for political reform in Mexico, and Spanish government surveillance of Catalan separatist politicians. Mexico and Spain have denied using Pegasus to spy on opponents, but accusations that they have done so are backed by substantial technical evidence.
Some of that evidence is contained in a lawsuit filed last October in California by WhatsApp and its parent company, Facebook, alleging that Pegasus manipulated WhatsApp’s infrastructure to infect more than 1,400 cell phones. Investigators at Facebook found more than 100 human rights defenders, journalists, and public figures among the targets, according to court documents. Each call that was picked up, they discovered, sent malicious code through WhatsApp’s infrastructure and caused the recipient’s phone to download spyware from servers owned by NSO. This, WhatsApp argued, was a violation of American law.
NSO has long faced such accusations with silence. Claiming that much of its business is an Israeli state secret, it has offered precious little public detail about its operations, customers, or safeguards.
Now, though, the company suggests things are changing. In 2019, NSO, which was owned by a private equity firm, was sold back to its founders and another private equity firm, Novalpina, for $1 billion. The new owners decided on a fresh strategy: emerge from the shadows. The company hired elite public relations firms, crafted new human rights policies, and developed new self-governance documents. It even began showing off some of its other products, such as a covid-19 tracking system called Fleming, and Eclipse, which can hack drones deemed a security threat.
About the Author:
Patrick Howell O’Neill is the cybersecurity senior editor for MIT Technology Review. He covers national security, election security and integrity, geopolitics, and personal security: How is cyber changing the world? Before joining the publication, he worked at the Aspen Institute and CyberScoop covering cybersecurity from Silicon Valley and Washington DC.
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