Pegasus Snoopgate: Israel Raids NSO Offices in Damage Control Bid

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Israeli defence minister, Benny Gantz, in Paris discussed Pegasus revelations with his French counterpart

Team Clarion

TEL AVIV — Officials from multiple Israeli government agencies have raided the offices of surveillance software vendor NSO Group, the Israeli Ministry of Defence announced on Wednesday.

The raids have taken place after a consortium of international journalists revealed earlier this month that NSO Group had sold access to its software —the Pegasus platform— to oppressive governments across the world, which abused it to spy on journalists, human rights activists, and political rivals.

Officials from the defence ministry visited the company’s offices near Tel Aviv on Wednesday, at the same time as the defence minister, Benny Gantz, arrived for a pre-arranged visit to Paris in which the Pegasus revelations were discussed with his French counterpart, reports The Irish Times.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, is one of the highest profile figures whose phone numbers appeared on a leaked database of 50,000 numbers that are believed to have been selected as candidates for possible surveillance by clients of NSO.

He spoke to the Israeli prime minister, Naftali Bennett, last week to stress the importance of “properly investigating” the project’s findings.

After media reports described the moves on NSO’s offices as a raid, the company said in a statement that the authorities had “visited” rather than raided its premises, according to the report.

NSO said it had been informed in advance that defence ministry officials responsible for overseeing commercial exports of sensitive cyber-exports would be doing an inspection. “The company is working in full transparency with the Israeli authorities,” it added.

The defence ministry said in a tweet that the visit conducted by several state bodies was related to disclosures stemming from the Pegasus project – a consortium of 17 media outlets, including the Guardian, which revealed last week that government clients around the world have used the hacking software sold by NSO to target human rights activists, journalists and lawyers.

As the scale of the disclosures has become clearer, diplomatic pressure has mounted on Israel to explain the nature of the relationship between NSO and the state under the tenure of former prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The wider Pegasus project investigation found that the Israeli government gave NSO explicit permission in 2017 to try to sell the hacking tools to Saudi Arabia in a deal reportedly worth at least €46 million ($55 million).

Israeli Defence Minister Gantz told the French defence minister, Florence Parly, on Wednesday that Israel was investigating the matter “with the utmost seriousness”, according to a statement from the Israeli defence ministry.

Gantz has previously defended export licences for the hacking tools, saying in a speech at a cyberware conference in Tel Aviv last week that “countries that purchase these systems must meet the terms of use”, which are solely for criminal and terrorism investigations.

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