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Israel: blacklisted NSO Group seeking comeback

December 7, 2022 at 2:35 pm

A photographic illustration shows a mobile phone near the NSO Group company logo [JACK GUEZ/AFP via Getty Images]

Israel’s blacklisted spyware company the NSO Group is looking to make a comeback with the return to power of Benjamin Netanyahu. The Prime Minister-designate is close to putting together a far-right coalition government which is expected to be the most extreme in the occupation state’s history. The controversial company views Netanyahu’s return as the ideal opportunity to get back its status as the producer of must-have spyware for the world’s autocrats and dictators.

NSO has been haemorrhaging losses since the administration of US President Joe Biden placed the spyware company on a trade blacklist. The group was accused of supplying technology to foreign governments for the purpose of maliciously targeting government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics and embassy workers.

The global backlash also forced the Israeli government to rein-in NSO’s controversial practices. The government imposed a stringent approval process for any new sales for the entire spyware industry, including NSO’s competitors. This was designed to make sales to countries with problematic human rights records extremely difficult.

READ: 50,000 phones on target list in global hacking scandal involving Israel’s NSO Group

European intelligence agencies were potential customers but people in the industry said that “nobody wanted to touch any Israel interception software at all.” EU-regulated competitors from Greece, Bulgaria and Cyprus, many of them staffed by Israelis, are said to have rushed to fill the gap in the market.

However, according to a report in the Financial Times, NSO co-founder Shalev Hulio believes that Netanyahu’s imminent comeback will provide much-needed political cover for the beleaguered company to conduct deals with nations crucial to Israel’s foreign policy. People familiar with Hulio are reported as saying that he is banking on Netanyahu, who was pivotal to the company’s success over the past 12 years.

During his previous tenure as prime minister, the Likud leader promoted NSO’s unique technology in order to prise open security relationships with India under the leadership of Narendra Modi, Gulf nations and once unfriendly East African nations.

Rapprochement with Saudi Arabia is said to be the major prize which the NSO Group is looking to capitalise on. Despite clandestine cooperation, Riyadh officially has no diplomatic ties with the apartheid state. A change in the relationship, which Netanyahu is desperate to secure, will reverse the NSO Group’s fortune.

“You can see why companies like NSO will be opening the champagne with Netanyahu’s return,” Eitay Mack is reported as saying in the FT. The human rights lawyer who has repeatedly sued the Israeli defence ministry to stop weapons sales to regimes with human rights issues added that, “It’s understandable that not just NSO, but other companies also see a lot of opportunity, especially with huge arms deals with the Saudis.”

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