|Shalev Hulio (CEO)|
NSO Group Technologies (NSO standing for Niv, Shalev and Omri, the names of the company's founders) is an Israel-based technology firm whose spyware called Pegasus enables the remote surveillance of smartphones. It was founded in 2010 by Niv Carmi, Omri Lavie, and Shalev Hulio. It employed almost 500 people as of 2017, and is based in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv.
NSO claims that it provides "authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime". According to several reports, software created by NSO Group was used in targeted attacks against human rights activists and journalists in various countries, was used in state espionage against Pakistan, and played a role in the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Kashoggi. In October 2019, instant messaging company WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook sued NSO under the US Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (CFAA).
The Pegasus spyware is classified as a weapon by Israel and any export of the technology must be approved by the government.
Annual revenues were around US$40 million in 2013 and $150 million in 2015. In June 2017, the company was put up for sale for $1 billion by Francisco Partners Management. Founders Lavie and Hulio, partnering with European private equity fund Novalpina Capital, purchased a majority stake in NSO in February 2019.
NSO's founders are ex-members of Unit 8200, the Israeli Intelligence Corps unit responsible for collecting signals intelligence. The company's start-up funding came from a group of investors headed by Eddy Shalev, a partner in venture capital fund Genesis Partners. The group invested a total of $1.8 million for a 30% stake.
In 2012, the government of Mexico announced the signing of a $20 million contract with NSO. It was later revealed by a New York Times investigation that NSO’s product was used to target journalists and human right activists in the country. In 2015, the company sold surveillance technology to the government of Panama. The contract became the subject of a Panamanian anti-corruption investigation following its disclosure in a leak of confidential information from Italian firm Hacking Team.
In 2014, the American private equity firm Francisco Partners bought the company for $130 million. In 2015 Francisco was seeking to sell the company for up to $1 billion. The company was officially put up for sale for more than $1 billion in June 2017, roughly ten times what Francisco originally paid in 2014. At that time, NSO had almost 500 employees, up from around 50 in 2014.
Citizen Lab researchers reported in October 2018 that they were being targeted by undercover operatives connected to NSO. An AP report on the incident could not find direct evidence connecting the operative surveillance of Citizen Lab's researchers to NSO, and NSO has denied any involvement.
In early February 2019, one of the operatives targeting Citizen Lab researchers was identified as Aharon Almog-Assouline, a "former Israeli security official living in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon."
On February 14, 2019, Francisco Partners sold a 60% majority stake of NSO back to co-founders Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, who were supported in the purchase by Novalpina Capital. Hulio and Lavie invested $100 million, with Novalpina acquiring the remaining portion of the majority stake, thus valuing the company at approximately $1 billion. The day after the acquisition, Novalpina attempted to address the concerns raised by Citizen Lab with a letter, stating their belief that NSO operates with sufficient integrity and caution.
In May 2019, messaging service WhatsApp alleged that a spyware injection exploit targeting its calling feature was developed by NSO. Victims were exposed to the spyware payload even if they did not answer the call. WhatsApp told the Financial Times that "the attack has all the hallmarks of a private company known to work with governments to deliver spyware that reportedly takes over the functions of mobile phone operating systems." NSO denied involvement in selecting or targeting victims, but did not explicitly deny creating the exploit. In response to the alleged cyberattack, WhatsApp sued NSO under the CFAA and other US laws in a San Francisco court on October 29. WhatsApp stated that the exploit targeted 1,400 users in 20 countries, including "at least 100 human-rights defenders, journalists and other members of civil society".
NSO employees had complained to WhatsApp about improved security, according to the court filings by WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook: "On or about May 13, 2019, Facebook publicly announced that it had investigated and identified a vulnerability involving the WhatsApp Service (CVE-2019-3568). WhatsApp and Facebook closed the vulnerability, contacted law enforcement, and advised users to update the WhatsApp app. Defendants subsequently complained that WhatsApp had closed the vulnerability. Specifically, NSO Employee 1 stated, 'You just closed our biggest remote for cellular . . . It’s on the news all over the world.'" WhatsApp also alerted the 1,400 targeted users. At least in one case, the surveillance was authorized by a judge.
In April 2020, NSO group blamed hacking of 1400 WhatsApp users including journalists and human rights activists on its government clients. However, the firm did not disclose the names of its clients which, as Citizen Lab stated, include authorities in Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Morocco, and Mexico. In court filings WhatsApp alleged that its investigation into how NSO's Pegasus was used against 1,400 users in 2019 showed that the hacks originated from NSO Group servers rather than its clients'. WhatsApp said "NSO used a network of computers to monitor and update Pegasus after it was implanted on users' devices. These NSO-controlled computers served as the nerve centre through which NSO controlled its customers' operation and use of Pegasus." WhatsApp said that NSO gained "unauthorised access" to WhatsApp servers by reverse-engineering the WhatsApp app to be able to evade security features. NSO responded "NSO Group does not operate the Pegasus software for its clients".
Early versions of Pegasus were used to surveil the phone of Joaquín Guzmán, known as El Chapo. In 2011, Mexican president Felipe Calderón reportedly called NSO to thank the company for its role in Guzmán's capture.
On August 25, 2016, Citizen Lab and Lookout revealed that Pegasus was being used to target human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor in the United Arab Emirates. Mansoor informed Citizen Lab researchers Bill Marczak and John Scott-Railton that his iPhone 6 had been targeted on August 10, 2016, by means of a clickable link in an SMS text message.
Analysis by Citizen Lab and Lookout discovered that the link downloaded software to exploit three previously unknown and unpatched zero-day vulnerabilities in iOS. According to their analysis, the software can jailbreak an iPhone when a malicious URL is opened, a form of attack known as spear phishing. The software installs itself and collects all communications and locations of targeted iPhones, including communications sent through iMessage, Gmail, Viber, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram and Skype. The software can also collect Wi-Fi passwords. The researchers noticed that the software's code referenced an NSO Group product called "Pegasus" in leaked marketing materials. Pegasus had previously come to light in a leak of records from Hacking Team, which indicated the software had been supplied to the government of Panama in 2015. The researchers discovered that Mexican journalist Rafael Cabrera had also been targeted, and that the software could have been used in Israel, Turkey, Thailand, Qatar, Kenya, Uzbekistan, Mozambique, Morocco, Yemen, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, and Bahrain.
In 2017, Citizen Lab researchers revealed that NSO exploit links may have been sent to Mexican scientists and public health campaigners. The targets supported measures to reduce childhood obesity, including Mexico's "Soda Tax."
In April 2017, after a Lookout report, Google researchers discovered Android malware "believed to be created by NSO Group Technologies" and naming it Chrysaor (Pegasus' brother in Greek mythology). According to Google, "Chrysaor is believed to be related to the Pegasus spyware".
In July 2017, the international team assembled to investigate the 2014 Iguala mass kidnapping publicly complained they thought they were being surveilled by the Mexican government. They stated that the Mexican government used Pegasus to send them messages about funeral homes containing links which, when clicked, allowed the government to surreptitiously listen to the investigators. The Mexican government has repeatedly denied any unauthorized hacking.
In June 2018, an Israeli court indicted a former employee of NSO Group for allegedly stealing a copy of Pegasus and attempting to sell it online for $50 million worth of cryptocurrency.
In October 2018 Citizen Lab reported on the use of NSO software to spy on the inner circle of Jamal Khashoggi just before his murder. Citizen Lab's October report stated, with high confidence, that NSO's Pegasus had been placed on the iPhone of Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, one of Khashoggi's confidantes, months before. Abdulaziz stated that the software revealed Khashoggi's "private criticisms of the Saudi royal family," which according to Abdulaziz "played a major role" in Khashoggi's death. In December 2018, a New York Times investigation concluded that Pegasus software played a role in the Khashoggi's murder, with a friend of Khashoggi stating in a filing that Saudi authorities had used the Israeli-made software to spy on the dissident. NSO CEO Shalev Hulio stated that the company had not been involved in the "terrible murder", but declined to comment on reports that he had personally traveled to the Saudi capital Riyadh for a $55 million Pegasus sale.
In June 2020, an investigation by Amnesty International alleged that Moroccan journalist Omar Radi was targeted using the Israeli spyware Pegasus. The rights group claimed that the journalist was targeted three times and spied after his device was infected with an NSO tool. Meanwhile, Amnesty also claimed that the attack came after the NSO group updated their policy in September 2019.
According to an investigation by The Guardian and El País, Pegasus software was used to compromise the phones of several politicians active in the Catalan independence movement, including President of the Parliament of Catalonia Roger Torrent, and former member of the Parliament of Catalonia Anna Gabriel i Sabaté.
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