In July, non-profit organizations revealed that some 50,000 people, including academics, activists and journalists, spied on Israel’s Pegasus program.
Washington has imposed sanctions on an Israeli company for misusing its phone-breaking spyware, authorities confirmed on Wednesday as Tel Aviv tried to stay away from the plan.
Bureau of Industry and Defense of the US Department of Commerce (BIS) The NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was used by foreign governments to “maliciously target” government officials, activists, journalists, academics and embassy workers around the world.
This led to the blacklisting of the Israeli NSO groups, along with three other companies. ‘Entity List’ – is a federal blacklist that prohibits companies from accepting any American hardware or software technology.
The rare move by the US government against an Israeli company is expected to disrupt the company’s activities and increase tensions between the US and its allies.
It came two weeks after the Department of Commerce announced a new policy to ban the sale of American hacking technology to any overseas entity that is reportedly involved in malicious hacking.
Rights experts slam NSO claims “funny” against Qatar, BDS over Pegasus scandal
“The NSO Group could not have operated without the knowledge and tolerance of the Israeli government, if not for encouragement,” said David Kay, a former UN special report who had earlier called for global restrictions on the sale of surveillance technology.
“Therefore it is not possible to see part of it only as a statement by the U.S. Government regarding this specific company; It is also a statement about the Israeli government, its export controls and its involvement in transnational repression. “
On Saturday, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid removed his government from the NSO group and claimed that it was a private company, it was not a government project and therefore even if it was designated, it had nothing to do with Israeli government policy. ”
At a press conference in Jerusalem, Lapid said, “I do not think there is another country in the world that has such strict rules under cyber warfare and it enforces these rules more than Israel and we will continue to do so.”
His remarks were the first published by a senior Israeli official since the US sanction on Wednesday.
The BIS explained that the NSO group was included in the list due to involvement in activities threatening the “national interests of U.S. foreign policy”, through the development and supply of spyware to foreign governments, through its Pegasus program.
Pegasus allows governments to discreetly hack into mobile phones without the user’s knowledge, and in fact provides access to vital information such as messages, location tracking and the ability to connect to cameras and microphones.
The Israeli company reportedly sold its spyware to several repressive governments around the world, claiming it had been used to address national security issues such as capturing terrorists and criminals.
“These tools have also enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside their sovereign borders to silence opposition. Such practices threaten the rules-based international order,” the BIS said.
The NSO Group has repeatedly stressed that it monitors the use of its services and prohibits its use for political purposes. However, according to reports from Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, a number of activists and political journalists around the world were on the list of 50,000 numbers hacked by Pegasus.
“Legal analyzes of phones by Amnesty International, which provided technical support for the Pegasus project investigation, found evidence that NSO customers used Amazon’s Internet services and other Internet service companies to transfer Pegasus malware to targeted phones,” the Washington Post reported.
An Amazon spokeswoman told a post earlier this year that the company “closed the relevant infrastructure and accounts” after finding out.
The U.S. government has also imposed sanctions on Kandiro, another Israeli company similar to Pegasus that has also sold its plan to several governments, such as Uzbekistan and Saudi Arabia. Qatar, Singapore and UAE.
Apart from the NSO and Candiru Group of Israel, the BIS has joined the Russian firm Positive Technologies and the Computer Security Initiative Consultancy PTE from Singapore. Ltd. to the list of entities for the supply of hacking tools used to hack computer systems.
This is one of the few times that the US government imposes a penalty on cyber surveillance issues.
“We look forward to further discussions with the Israeli government on ensuring that the products of these companies are not used for the purposes of human rights defenders, journalists and others that should not be targeted,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said earlier.
Also read: Spyware and Censorship: How Governments Control What You See on the Internet
The U.S. move is considered part of the new Biden administration’s efforts to put human rights at the center of U.S. foreign policy, including by cracking down on the proliferation of digital tools used in repression, according to the Department of Commerce.
NSO spokesman Oded Hershkowitz said the company was “scared” of the decision and would seek to overturn it.
The company said its “strict” human rights policy “is based on the American values we deeply share, which has already led to the termination of a large number of contracts with government agencies that have abused our products.”
Sen. Ron Widen (D-Ore.) Said in a statement Wednesday that “President Biden is sending a strong message that the United States will not stand up to foreign hacking companies that violate human rights and threaten our national security.”
He also called for stricter measures, including “disconnecting from the US financial system and investing by imposing sanctions under the Magnitsky World Law.”
The blacklist could also weaken NSO’s position vis-à-vis investors and cloud the company’s attempts to rebuild its image as a maker of critical surveillance tools that law enforcement agencies need to catch criminals.
Commerce officials said the Israeli companies on the list had allowed oppressive governments to target “opponents, journalists and activists outside their sovereignty borders to silence opponents.”
In July, the Citizen Lab research group released a report showing that Candiro sells to governments “undetectable” spyware that can be used to serve their repression policies.
The report found that the spyware was used to target activists, journalists and politicians “in the Palestinian territories, Iran, Lebanon, Britain, Turkey, Yemen and other countries,” the post mentioned.
“Kay, the former UN special correspondent, said the list would have major practical and symbolic implications for the NSO Group, which has worked aggressively to attract investors, government customers and positive media coverage,” the paper said.
Use of Pegasus during the 2017 Gulf crisis
Last year, the UAE and Saudi Arabia Arab was charged with breaking into at least 36 Al Jazeera Journalists, and one journalist from Al Araby TV London, with the Pegasus spyware.
On December 21, 2020, the University of Toronto’s Citizens’ Laboratory released a Molotov cocktail Report Detailing how the UAE and Saudi Arabia used the invasive electronic spyware tool Pegasus to break into journalists working for the news channel Al Jazeera Qatar.
Read also: How Arab regimes used Israeli spyware to spy on activists, journalists
Politically, the Citizen Lab report comes amid talks on normalization between Qatar and Saudi Arabia, which along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt severed diplomatic and economic ties with Qatar in 2017.
This crisis ended only months ago in January after all parties involved signed an agreement but not to end the rift and renew diplomatic ties.
Al-Jazeera’s 36 journalists made up the vast majority of about 50 journalists known to be targeted at Pegasus. That’s a whopping 72%.
The consequences of such surveillance cost journalists their freedom, liberty, and in some cases even their lives.
Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have targeted not only Qatar but also activists and journalists for simply criticizing their governments.
The kingdom reportedly used NSO surveillance tools on the phones of associates of Saudi journalist Jamal Hashukaji before and after he was killed by order of Saudi Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman.
In addition, while investigating his assassination, Saudi Arabia used Pegasus spyware to target Hashudi’s son, active friends and people who oppose the Saudi regime.
Hashugi was not the only activist whose goal was the kingdom.
The phone number of prominent activist Lujin al-Khatul also appeared in the list of leaked NSO targets. Al-Khatul is known for publicly opposing the ban on women driving and the male guardianship systems in Saudi Arabia.
It is believed that she was selected as a target just a few weeks before she was captured in the UAE. She was then returned to Saudi Arabia and imprisoned for three years before the global calls for her liberation finally led to her freedom.