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Israel stops sale of controversial spyware in effort to contain global scandal

This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021. - Private Israeli firm NSO Group has denied media reports its Pegasus software is linked to the mass surveillance of journalists and rights defenders, and insisted that all sales of its technology are approved by Israel's defence ministry (Photo by JOEL SAGET / AFP) (Photo by JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images)
This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris on July 21, 2021 [JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images]

Israel has banned the sale of controversial NSO Group spyware to 65 countries, including Arab states that recently normalised ties with the occupation state. The UAE, Morocco and Saudi Arabia are among dozens of countries which will no longer be given access to the infamous Pegasus spyware.

The decision by the Israeli Defence Ministry to scale back dramatically the number of countries to which the NSO Group can sell its spyware is seen as a desperate attempt to contain the global scandal surrounding the use of Israeli technology by brutal regimes around the world to target their own citizens.

Details of an investigation released in July found that as many as 50,000 phone numbers may have been selected for covert surveillance using the Israeli snooping technology. Many belonged to prominent journalists, human rights groups and activists, as well as politicians.

NSO Group gained notoriety following the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi three years ago. Members of his inner circle were targeted by the Israeli spyware which has become the weapon of choice for autocrats against critics and opposition figures.

Israel: NSO spyware company has $500m debt 

Earlier this week Apple said that it had filed a lawsuit against the Israeli firm and its parent company OSY Technologies, in an effort to stop the spyware company from using any Apple devices. This followed a decision by the US to place the Israeli company on its trade blacklist, which has pushed it into debt estimated at $500 million.

Details published by Israeli financial sources show that the country's leaders are trying desperately to repair the damage to the country's reputation. The number of countries licensed to buy NSO Group spyware is said to have been cut to just 37, down from 102 at the beginning of the month. Around 500 other Israeli spyware companies may also be affected, giving an indication of Israel's role as a major exporter of technology used by autocrats to suppress their citizens.

According to Amnesty International and the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab which studies surveillance issues, Morocco, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Mexico are countries where Pegasus has been linked to political surveillance. The governments in Rabat and Abu Dhabi both normalised relations with Israel last year.

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