NSO: Arm of the defense establishment or negligent bad boy? - EXCLUSIVE

They suggested that the most interesting question regarding Facebook is not whether NSO hacked WhatsApp, as described in the lawsuit, but rather what this hack means.

Technology. (Illustrative) (photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Technology. (Illustrative)
(photo credit: INGIMAGE)
Herzliya-based NSO Group Technologies is entangled in numerous lawsuits over its spyware, which enables remote hacking of smartphones. But from behind the scenes discussions, the company implies it exists because it practically serves as an extension of Israel’s defense apparatus.
According to NSO sources, it both battles terrorism and plays an indirect role in Israel’s diplomatic efforts with Middle Eastern states. While the secretive company rarely grants access to the press, The Jerusalem Post recently visited its headquarters and sat down with the people on the inside.
The accusations against NSO have painted it as an immoral force capable of trampling human rights in ways that only immoral governments could previously do. Yet it presents itself as a technology company that fights terrorism, drug lords and pedophiles in a way that no one else can. Moreover, NSO inside sources say they are strengthening Israeli ties to Sunni countries and others.
NSO is accused of having its technology used by the Saudis in tracking journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who the Saudis brutally murdered. It has allegedly harassed human rights activists from Mexico to Morocco.
Facebook is suing NSO in the US for allegedly hacking WhatsApp, which the social media giant owns. And Amnesty International has asked an Israeli court to effectively end its business.
NSO sources denied the worst allegations, yet insiders made some admissions, telling the Post that some less serious allegations are gray areas.
Additionally, the company's CEO, Shalev Hulio, is an enigma. However charming, he is combative when protecting his company, which he feels has been unfairly besmirched by questionable or naïve groups. NSO sources claimed that they are just doing what most Western intelligence agencies do: playing the “big game” to protect national security.
Some of these are not admissions that NSO sources could make on record due to a combination of contractual and other legal concerns. But this does not clear up all the questions.
Did an array of former Israeli intelligence and defense operatives, who constitute a serious part of NSO, go to the “dark side” when they joined the private sector? Is Israeli intelligence cyber-attacking know-how being used to sabotage democratic ideals?
Or are they saving many innocent lives by helping countries which lack the technology to keep up with the terrorism challenges they face?
Are there so many layers of complexity to the NSO story that the good and the bad intersect, and alternately outweigh one another?
Without formally admitting to Facebook’s specific lawsuit, with a wink and a nod, NSO sources indirectly admitted that hacking a service like Facebook’s WhatsApp to stop bad guys is part of why they need to exist.
They suggested that the most interesting question regarding Facebook is not whether NSO hacked WhatsApp, as described in the lawsuit, but rather what this hack means. If the hack did occur, Facebook and individual users might have a right to civil damages. But might the hack have been worth it anyway if it saved lives?
NSO sources explained that part of the company’s entry into this area of business was that many governments – often European ones – lacked the technology or were legally restrained from finding needed evidence on the cellular phones of terrorists, drug lords or pedophiles.
If NSO can help stop terror attacks by hacking WhatsApp, company sources would ask: Shouldn’t the company be desired? After all, most people want their government intelligence and defense establishments to be able to have this sophistication.
NSO revealed that in the past year its technology helped stop at least three major terrorist attacks in Europe, Africa and the Australia-Pacific regions, hours before they were to take place.
These revelations are significant because they come after and despite the increasing negative press coverage of NSO over the last year.
Those associated with NSO claim that if they had hacked accounts at services like Facebook or WhatsApp, they would be doing nothing different than what some government intelligence agencies are already doing.
This retort raises a broader theme and dilemma: While some have reported that NSO might occasionally need to hack an innocent party’s electronic communications in order to collect information about a terrorist – it famously hacked actor Sean Penn’s telephone in order to help with the arrest of drug baron El Chapo – the real picture is somewhat different.
NSO sources say that finding out which legitimate people interact with a terrorist and then hacking them to get intelligence on the terrorist is often the method of choice, as it might be the only way to obtain this information. This would mean that Sean Penn-style hacks may be more the rule than the exception – not only for NSO, but also for intelligence agencies whose personnel are charged with espionage.
Sources at the company insist that Facebook is going after it in order to redirect unwanted attention from Facebook’s own trampling on privacy rights. A spokeswoman for Facebook said the company had no comment on this allegation.
The social media giant alleges that NSO used malicious code being transmitted over WhatsApp servers from April 29 to May 10 to infect around 1,400 specific devices. The lawsuit also mentions specific WhatsApp accounts being created in Cyprus, Israel, Brazil, Indonesia, Sweden and the Netherlands to achieve the hack, and mentions malicious servers owned by Choopa, Quadranet and Amazon Web Services.
NSO’s outer lack of worrying – despite major legal actions by Facebook in the US and by Amnesty in the Tel Aviv District Court against the Israeli Defense Ministry to end or restrict NSO’s business license – could just be its putting on a strong face, but it was still striking.
Hulio and NSO officials give off the aura of confidence and an eagerness to go to battle. But there are signs that some of the defenders of NSO are weakening. One source said that a postponement of the Israeli lawsuit from November to January was not the court being deferential, but the defense ministry weighing whether to turn its back on NSO.
Yet, NSO sources appear confident that the company will weather the storm. And part of that is because the Defense Ministry took a bet on NSO that probably paid off in terms of improving relations with certain moderate Sunni Arab states.
When some defend NSO, they frame this as the most important issue.
Some may say that even if it is possible that the Saudis misused NSO technology against Khashoggi, selling to the Saudis would still be worth it for Israel geopolitically. (NSO vehemently denies its technology was misused and says it did its own research to check that.)
Some in the defense establishment would argue that giving a country the ability to fight terrorism makes the world safer and improves relations in a serious way.