A top executive at Israeli company NSO Group is punching back at widespread criticism from governments and researchers that its spyware Pegasus is used to target governments and not to combat terrorism.
“We know how many lives have been saved because of Pegasus around the world — including big terror attacks that were prevented because of Pegasus,” Ariella ben Abraham, a global communications executive at NSO told Maggie during an interview last week.
The company has faced a wave of scrutiny in recent years as report after report details the ways users of its spyware have abused the technology — which can be installed on a victim’s phone and collect data without them noticing — to spy on officials across Europe, the Middle East, Central America and beyond, including one just last month detailing the surveillance of Catalan politicians and activists. And those reports have hit NSO Group pretty hard: The United States blacklisted the company late last year due to concerns about abuse, and NSO has been struggling to find a buyer to take over parts of its business.
But Abraham argues the scrutiny is excessive, especially considering the good work the technology has accomplished and the business changes it’s made to prevent abuse. The company also now works closely with the Israeli government, and each potential new contract is required to be approved by the country’s defence ministry.
An NSO spokesperson also said the company has refused sale requests from private sector companies and that NSO terminates contracts if the spyware was misused. “There is a big need for tools like this with law enforcement agencies as there is no other way to catch paedophiles, to catch terrorists, operating on the web,” Abraham said. “That is where they operate, and this is the only solution, using tools like this.”
But top officials and researchers still argue that NSO Group’s technologies do way more harm than good. “They’ve been claiming for ages that they are the good guys,” Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told Maggie during a phone call last week. “I hope that democracies are not going to just take this NSO statement that spyware is going after terrorists and paedophiles at face value.”
John Scott Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab and one of the authors of the recent report, also told Maggie it’s unlikely the company will make meaningful changes: “Whatever it is they are doing, it’s clearly not working, because there are now hundreds of documented cases and growing.”
Abraham said NSO would welcome more regulation spelling out who the company can — and cannot — sell their spyware to and prevent future abuses of its technology “like the Geneva Convention for the cyber intelligence industry.”