Israel has set up a senior inter-ministerial team to “look into” proliferating allegations that spyware sold by a Israeli cyber firm has been abused on a global scale, news agency Reuters said on Wednesday quoting an Israeli source.
In another interesting development on Wednesday, NSO, the developer of spyware Pegasus said it will no longer respond to media inquiries. It said that the expose by 17 news organisations across the world since Sunday was a “planned and well-orchestrated media campaign led by Forbidden Stories and pushed by special interest groups”.
“NSO will thoroughly investigate any credible proof of misuse of its technologies, as we always had, and will shut down the system where necessary,” a spokesperson said.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Government’s team is headed by Israel’s National Security Council, which answers to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and has broader areas of expertise than the Defence Ministry, which oversees exports of the NSO Group’s Pegasus software, the source said.
“This event is beyond the Defence Ministry’s purview,” the source said, referring to potential diplomatic blowback after prominent media reports this week of suspected abuses of Pegasus in France, Mexico, India, Morocco and Iraq.
On Wednesday, French Prime Minister Jean Castex said French President Emmanuel Macron had called for a series of investigations to be carried out into the Pegasus spyware case.
Macron’s phone was on a list of potential targets for possible surveillance on behalf of Morocco in the Pegasus case, reported French paper Le Monde on Tuesday.
The source, who has first-hand knowledge of the Israeli team and requested anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue, deemed it “doubtful” that new curbs would be placed on Pegasus exports.
Stopping short of describing the team’s task as a formal investigation, the source said: “The objective is to find out what happened, to look into this issue and learn lessons.”
NSO did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Bennett’s office declined comment. Addressing a cyber conference on Wednesday, the Prime Minister did not mention the NSO affair.
NSO has said Pegasus is intended for use only by Government Intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime.
Such purposes are also what guide Israel’s export policy, Defence Minister Benny Gantz said in a speech on Tuesday. But, in a reference to the allegations around Pegasus, he added: “We are currently studying the information published on the matter.”
At the conference, Bennett said Israel has memorandums of understanding with dozens of countries about cyber security, which he wants to upgrade into a “global cyber defence shield”.