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Israel spyware company works with 22 clients in 12 EU countries

August 10, 2022 at 1:01 pm

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]

Israeli cyberwarfare company NSO has contracts with 12 EU countries, through which it provided 22 security agencies with Pegasus software to spy on smartphones, according to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.

This data was discovered during the visit of representatives of the European Parliament Committee of Inquiry on Pegasus spyware to Israel recently. The officials met with NSO representatives, officials in the Israeli Security Ministry and local experts in the field in order to get an in-depth look at the Israeli cyber warfare industry. The European Parliament Committee members included a Catalan legislator whose cell phone was hacked by an NSO customer.

During the committee’s visit to Israel, and especially after their return to Brussels, an advanced cyber warfare industry was uncovered in Europe as well, with many of its clients European countries.

Pegasus spyware, as well as similar programs developed by other companies, can infect a victim’s mobile phone, making is possible to eavesdrop on conversations, read encrypted applications and messages, fully access the contacts in the phone, and obtain real time updates on events taking place in the vicinity of the phone by turning on the camera and microphone.

During its visit to Israel, the European Parliament committee demanded to know the names of NSO’s customers in Europe. It was found that some 14 countries have signed contracts with the company in the past, and 12 countries are still using Pegasus in a legal manner to hack smartphones, according to the NSO’s response to questions from the European Commission of Inquiry.

READ: EU found evidence employee phones compromised with spyware – letter

NSO added that it currently works with 22 security agencies, intelligence services and law enforcement authorities in 12 countries in the EU, with contracts being signed with the agencies and not with states. However, the Israeli company did not provide details about which countries have active clients and those that have stopped working with it.

According to the newspaper, sources in the cyber field predict that NSO has stopped working with Poland and Hungary after they were removed, last year, from the list of countries to which Israel allows the export of offensive cyber programs.

The sources confirmed that NSO is still working with Spain, despite the revelation that it spied on one of the separatist leaders in Catalonia, because Spain is considered a “law-abiding state.”

The newspaper quoted Dutch committee member and legislator, Sophie in ‘t Veld, as saying: “If just one company has 14 member states for customers, you can imagine how big the sector is overall. There seems to be a huge market for commercial spyware, and EU governments are very eager buyers. But they are very quiet about it, keeping it from the public eye.”

“We know spyware is being developed in several EU countries. Not least Italy, Germany and France,” in ‘t Veld said. “Even if they use it for legitimate purposes, they have no appetite for more transparency, oversight and safeguards. Secret services have got their own universe, where normal laws don’t apply. To an extent, which has always been the case, but in the digital era they have become all-powerful, and practically invisible and totally elusive,” she added.