CEO-designate of NSO spyware firm quits following US blacklist

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The change in management comes after the US imposed sanctions on the Israeli company for aiding repressive governments.

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The incoming new chief executive of Israeli spyware maker NSO Group has resigned after Palestinian officials claimed its software hacked his phone, a company spokesman said on Thursday.

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Isaac Benbenisti, a telecommunications executive who joined NSO in August and was named last week to succeed NSO founder and CEO Shalev Hulio, abruptly resigned after the United States announced sanctions on NSO.

A spokesman told Reuters News: “In light of the special circumstances that arose following the US decision, Benbenisti stated in a resignation letter to NSO President Asher Levy that he “will not be able to assume the position of CEO with the company”. . Service.

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The US Commerce Department announced on November 3 that it had blacklisted NSO for supplying repressive spyware to foreign governments that had used these tools “maliciously” to a number of actors, including journalists and activists.

NSO spyware, manufactured by veterans of top Israeli military intelligence units, gives intruders access to everything that a person stores and does on their mobile phone, including real-time communications.

US sanctions mean exports to NSO from US counterparts will be restricted, theoretically making it harder for the company to do business.

NSO’s Pegasus spyware has been found on the phones of Palestinian officials and employees of civil society groups that Israel has controversially considered terrorist organizations. The groups dispute the label.

“We have confirmed by experts and specialized companies that Pegasus has been found on the phone of three foreign ministry officials,” Ahmed al-Dek, a senior Palestinian Foreign Ministry official, told Agence France-Presse on Thursday.

The Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Migrants said it “condemns in the strongest terms” the hacking of Palestinians’ phones, calling it a “crime that must be held accountable”.

Thursday’s announcement by the Foreign Ministry marks the first time Palestinian officials have accused the NSO of spying on them.

NSO’s military-grade spyware was detected on the mobile phones of six Palestinian human rights activists, according to findings from non-profit groups Frontline Defenders, Amnesty International and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which independently confirmed the results.

A demonstrator holds a banner during a protest outside the offices of the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, on July 25, attended by about a dozen people. [File: Nir Elias/Reuters]

Lev Topor of the Center for Cyber ​​Law and Policy at the University of Haifa in Israel told Reuters that the future of the NSO may depend on whether other countries follow the US lead.

“They may be blocked in the US but not elsewhere, and the US may still rent their services through third parties by proxy,” Topor said.

But, “if governments around the world, and especially the Israeli government, make it difficult for them to do business, they will struggle”, he said.

Israeli officials have pushed back against the US blacklisting of NSO, arguing that Pegasus can only be sold to states, and that the sale must be approved by Israeli authorities.

Speaking to reporters on 6 November, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid stressed that NSO is a “private company” that follows Israel’s defense export guidelines, AFP reported.

“I don’t think there is any other country in the world that has such strict rules regarding cyber warfare and is enforcing those rules more than Israel,” Lapid said.

Israeli defense officials said they had launched an investigation into NSO’s practices after allegations of software misuse surfaced. No result has been declared.

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