Amid NSO scandal, over 3,600 export licenses revoked in the past year

NSO Group has been under a cloud of controversy following the release of the Pegasus Project

  THE MINISTRY of Defense building in Tel Aviv (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
THE MINISTRY of Defense building in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

More than 3,600 export licenses were revoked by Israel’s Defense Ministry over the past year over concerns about human rights abuses and political instability.

“The Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs are constantly conducting policy and strategic situational assessments and adapting defense export policies following developments and other events in various countries,” the Defense Ministry said Monday.

The announcement by the Ministry comes a month after the Defense Export Controls Agency (DECA) in the Defense Ministry tightened control of cyber exports and published an updated version of the end-user declaration that every country must sign as a condition to get the license.

While the ministry said that it was working to “tighten control over cyber exports,” Israeli cyber surveillance companies like NSO Group continue to remain in the headlines over its spyware like Pegasus that can switch on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvest the phone’s data.

Israel has long claimed it maintains strict oversight over any weapons sales to foreign governments and NSO continues to defend its products that are sold “only to legitimate law enforcement agencies who use these systems under warrants to fight criminals, terrorists and corruption.”

ISRAELI CYBER firm NSO Group’s exhibition stand is seen at ISDEF 2019, an international defense and homeland security expo held in Tel Aviv in 2019. (credit: KEREN MANOR)ISRAELI CYBER firm NSO Group’s exhibition stand is seen at ISDEF 2019, an international defense and homeland security expo held in Tel Aviv in 2019. (credit: KEREN MANOR)

But the company has faced countless accusations since the release of the Pegasus Project this past summer, when close to 50,000 targets worldwide, including journalists and activists, were found to have been hacked by the product.

On Friday, The New York Times published an investigation that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu renewed an expired license for the spyware for Saudi Arabia following a phone call from Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Defense Ministry had initially refused to renew the license, citing the kingdom’s abuse of the spyware, in reference to its use to track journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was killed at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

In November, the firm was placed on the United States’ trade blacklist along with Candiru, after it was determined that the company acts “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US” and that they allowed foreign governments the ability to “use these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics and embassy workers.”

DECA also announced on Monday that there were approximately 18,000 applications for marketing licenses to some 190 countries and another estimated 5,300 applications for security-related export licenses to about 130 different countries during 2021.

There are 1,700 exporters currently registered in the Defense Export Register, and an estimated 11,000 products are registered with DECA.

DECA head Racheli Chen said 2021 has “obliged” the agency to make “changes and adjustments in the supervision policy and even the tightening of supervision with a focus on the export of intelligence and cyber systems.”

“We will continue to focus on safeguarding and preventing human rights violations, by taking a broad look at weapons, including cyber,” Chen said. She added that while there is an increase in the competition in the world’s defense market and therefore a need to “simply and shorten processes,” the agency will “find the right balance between the need for defense exports and the need for effective and efficient supervision for strategic, political and economic considerations.”