The US Department of Justice is showing renewed interest in an Israeli cyber company previously tied to the surveilling of journalists and rights activists around the world, after an FBI investigation began in 2017 was reportedly “stalled” in 2020. Israeli spyware company NSO Group is facing a lawsuit in the US filed by the messaging platform WhatsApp. The renewed efforts are part of the Biden administration agenda to increase its emphasis on human rights and crack down on the Saudis, experts say.
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The Guardian reported on Monday that the Justice Department is reviving its examination of NSO Group. The report said that Justice Department lawyers had recently contacted WhatsApp for information regarding NSO Group’s alleged 2019 targeting of 1,400 users of the messaging app, which is at the heart of a lawsuit filed by WhatsApp against the Israeli company.
NSO Group is based in the coastal city of Herzliya, located in central Israel. The company is most famous for a tool it calls Pegasus, which reportedly has been used to target rights activists, journalists and government officials in such diverse locations as Mexico, Morocco and India. Pegasus, a smartphone spyware, is said to allow activities such as spying on phone calls and messages, as well as enabling the phone’s microphone and camera. While the company repeatedly has been criticized for its use against government critics around the world, it insists that the tool is sold for the sole purpose of fighting crime and terrorism.
Prof. Orr Dunkelman of Haifa University’s computer science department is a director of The Center for Cyber Law and Policy. He said that the special interest in this company, just one of Israel’s rich selection of cybersecurity firms, is because its tools are used for “offensive cyber.” “Offensive cyber is, in many ways, a weapon,” Dunkelman told The Media Line. While Israel has a number of offensive cyber companies, “NSO have simply been caught a few times’ in the surveilling of activists and journalists, “at least according to groups that specialize in this area such as The Citizen Lab,” he said.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert in US-Israel relations and American policy in the Middle East at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, explains that the renewed interest in the company under the Biden administration is a result of its increased attention to human rights issues. “This administration is sensitive to human rights,” Gilboa told The Media Line. Specifically, “any use of a cyber tool whose aim is to harm human rights is of special interest to them,” he said.
The Democratic administration developed a heightened sensitivity to cyber violations in response to the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, the professor explained.
Gilboa sees the revival of the investigation as also connected to a different policy toward Saudi Arabia, as well as a larger shift in American policy in the Middle East in general. While the Trump administration was a close ally to the Saudis, the present administration repeatedly has expressed its reservations regarding the Saudi regime. At the same time, the US has expressed its readiness to return to the Iran nuclear deal, after former President Donald Trump decided to step away from the agreement. “It has to do with Biden’s change in foreign policy in general, and its first application is Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Importantly, the Saudis reportedly used NSO spyware to watch Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose 2018 assassination in Istanbul by Saudi operatives has been revived by the current administration, and is significantly straining Saudi-US relations.
Gilboa doesn’t see a connection between the renewal of the investigation into NSO’s activities and the Biden administration’s policy toward Israel. He said he does not think that the first investigation into the company, which began under the Trump administration, was put on hold because of Israel, “and what is being revealed now isn’t necessarily connected to Israel, isn’t connected to Israel,” he said. “I believe that any other company would have found itself in the same position, and that’s my test.”
Prof. Dov Waxman, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies at UCLA, where he directs the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, goes a step further in disconnecting the investigation from outside factors. “I don’t think the DoJ is a kind of arm of American foreign policy,” he told The Media Line.
While Waxman believes the new administration is less likely to have been involved in renewing the investigation, he suggests that Biden entering the Oval Office may have removed political obstacles possibly put in place under Trump. “It’s more a removal of politicization, if there was” under the former president, he said. This politicization made the Justice Department under Trump more aligned with the former administration’s close relations with Israel and Saudi Arabia, to name two examples; Biden may have simply removed these considerations.
However, if there is a tighter connection to the present administration’s policy, Waxman points to its emphasis on human rights as central to foreign policy. Additionally, Google, Microsoft and their fellow tech industry leaders recently voiced their concerns regarding NSO. “The Biden administration definitely has a better relationship with those tech giants than did the Trump Administration,” the UCLA professor said, “so it’s more receptive to their concerns.”
Waxman refers also to a recent court win for NSO in Israel, which may have contributed to the renewed interest in the company. Amnesty International had petitioned the Israeli court to revoke NSO’s export license, but the petition was rejected in July 2020. NSO’s Pegasus is classified as a weapon by Israel, and therefore requires an export license from Israel’s Defense Ministry. The judge that rejected the petition said she was convinced that the licensing procedure is “a strict and sensitive procedure during which export requests receive deep consideration,” and that there is continued supervision that can lead to a suspension of the license in cases of human rights abuse, according to the Israeli business daily Globes.
Dunkelman expressed his concerns about such exports. “I tend to believe that Israel’s defense exports – including in this area – aren’t supervised carefully enough,” he said. He is echoing a lively debate in Israel surrounding the country’s arms exports and the supervision of those that eventually get their hands on advanced Israeli technology; supervision many in the country believe may not be strict enough.
NSO Group declined to comment for this report.