Israel's NSO cellphone tech: Saving victims of natural disasters

In Mexico in 2017, NSO’s technological tool was used at a site of a “six story building disaster in a very central area like Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv.”

A test drone operator prepares to launch a drone during a demonstration of Israel's NSO Group's product, Eclipse, a system that commandeers and force-lands intruding drones, at Bloomfield Stadium, in Tel Aviv, Israel June 8, 2020 (photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
A test drone operator prepares to launch a drone during a demonstration of Israel's NSO Group's product, Eclipse, a system that commandeers and force-lands intruding drones, at Bloomfield Stadium, in Tel Aviv, Israel June 8, 2020
(photo credit: AMMAR AWAD / REUTERS)
Yochay Manoff is an IDF Lt. Col. and company commander in the Israeli National Rescue Unit (NRU) and has participated in search and rescue missions across the world.
Manoff is also an NSO Group vice president relating to clients, and in a rare first-time interview by a company official this week, he explained how he and the organization are helping revolutionize the search and rescue sector using their technology.
In July, the Tel Aviv District Court ruled in favor of the Defense Ministry and NSO Group and against an Amnesty International’s lawsuit to cancel the cyber powerhouse’s export license.
Amnesty petitioned the court to cancel the export license, claiming that NSO violates human rights, including that its technology was used by its clients to hack some Amnesty employees’ and human rights' activists cell phones.
NSO Group is known worldwide for developing Pegasus software, which some governments and intelligence agencies use to hack the cellphones of terrorists, drug rings and pedophiles.
However, Amnesty and other human-rights groups say it has a darker side and also sells to governments that abuse human rights.
NSO still faces a separate lawsuit in the US from Facebook for allegedly hacking WhatsApp.
To date, NSO had tried to argue a version of sovereign immunity to the case since it serves national intelligence agencies, but the court rejected that defense which will mean NSO will likely have to give a more detailed accounting of its affairs.
From Nepal in 2015, Ramat Hahayal in Israel in 2016, Mexico in 2017 to Brazil in 2019, NSO has been deploying its unique technology for locating cell phones to help search and rescue efforts leap to a new level of accuracy and efficiency.
Better known for cell phone related technologies that try to locate terrorists and organized crime groups, he said NSO’s technology was a game changer for search and rescue, by using cellular signals products to help find and save people who are trapped.
Prior to Nepal, Manoff had been frustrated with many of the inefficiencies of existing search and rescue techniques and the tools used in missions he had been on.
He told the Post: “The search and rescue arena had a very traditional approach: using dogs, cameras and sensors which could be distracted and caused to malfunction very easily” by other sounds and movement.
If there are significant volumes of intervening mud or water, then the dogs have no chance” to locate anyone. “Birds also mix up dogs. They smell a bird or anything organic and you start digging for a bird or a dead rat or a refrigerator.”
Along with NSO CEO Shalev Hulio, Manoff realized that “we could use the same tools we use for law enforcement and to stop terror in the search and rescue arena.”
“If I can find a cellphone, we can locate it and narrow the search to within a one-meter area,” infinitely faster than the traditional techniques, Manoff said.
Instead of looking everywhere at a massive and spread out disaster site, “you invest your forces and your resources in the correct one-meter area where you should be digging.”
He described situations where there are fallen houses and hospitals in a giant mound of destruction and rescue workers “don’t know where to start. But if the information is credible, then you can segment off exactly where to focus.”
Discussing a scenario where a building has at least been partially destroyed, but walls and portions of the floors of the building still obscure where survivors may be trapped, he said that NSO’s technology could figure out exactly behind which wall a survivor was located and they could quickly get to work to save the survivor.
Another increased efficiency is avoiding unnecessary searches for people who might be caught up in a disaster, but in fact were not at the scene.
During one disaster relief rescue, Manoff said that authorities were looking for 30-40 people just because they were on a list of possible persons at the scene. “But this was a waste of time,” once “NSO was able to confirm for sure that those people were not trapped. Rescue is always a race against time,” and resources should only be spent on people who are actually trapped.
In Mexico in 2017, NSO’s technological tool was used at a site of a “six-story building disaster in a very central area like Sderot Rothschild in Tel Aviv.”

Rescue workers
had been trying unsuccessfully for 20 hours to find survivors when Manoff and NSO’s team arrived.
While the NSO team worked on locating and freeing the survivors, anytime Manoff took a brief break to go to the bathroom or otherwise, family members of those trapped would “grab my hand, look into my eyes and ask me what had happened.”
Until Manoff’s technology helped find the survivors, the rescue worker’s traditional instincts had led them to search in the wrong place.
“All the witnesses said people had gone to the building’s middle stairs and the different local rescue worker analysts thought rescuing in the middle of the building was the key because the cafeteria was in the middle,” said Manoff.
Continuing, he said, “but this information was biased. NSO entered as a game changer – with a dramatically more effective rescue plan. We found the people had evacuated using the spiral stairs at the back of the building.”
Numerous lives were saved and had it not been for NSO’s technology, the rescuers might not have even gotten to looking at the back of the building until it was too late.
Regarding obtaining trapped person’s cell phone numbers, Manoff noted that everything is done legally under the umbrella of the local government who provide a list of names and phone numbers and special permission to use them exclusively for the rescue.
NSO is known worldwide for developing Pegasus software, which some governments and intelligence agencies use to hack the cellphones of terrorists, drug rings and pedophiles. However, Amnesty and other human-rights groups have claimed that the technology has been sold to governments that abuse human rights. NSO still faces a separate lawsuit in the US from Facebook for allegedly hacking WhatsApp.
Unlike NSO’s Pegasus technology, which according to media reports can access data within cell phones, the technology used for search and rescue is a different one whose sole capability is to bear down on a cellphone’s location in order to save trapped persons.
In the 2019 Brumadinho dam disaster in Brazil, a broken dam released a mudflow that advanced through the offices of a mine, including a cafeteria during lunchtime, along with houses downstream and hundreds were killed.
Despite the tragedy, NSO was able to “save many dozens of lives who would otherwise not have been located in time.”
When Manoff arrived at the disaster scene in Brazil in 2019, the fire commissioner was completely distraught that his workers had very little chance of finding survivors before they asphyxiated, starved or died from wounds.
But after only a few minutes, Manoff used NSO’s technology to quickly locate survivors. The lifting of the fire commissioner’s spirit and the gratitude from “the look in his eyes was incredible,” said Manoff.  
For confidentiality reasons, NSO does not reveal the number of countries using its search and rescue technology and concerning the actual use of the technology, while the back-office work is highly complex, once the technology is employed in the field, it is practically as easy as keying in a cell phone number, hitting enter and soon after getting a location.
How did Manoff pull all of this off?
One of his “strengths is to combine expertise in search and rescue operations with familiarity with the technology.”
He said, “Our commitment to developing technology which saves lives extends beyond investigating and fighting crime and terror. NSO’s search and rescue solutions are another example of how our technology helps governments protect their citizens.”
Manoff presented NSO’s search and rescue system at The Third International Security Symposium in Brazil last week and NSO also provided a workshop for the Brazilian navy eight months ago.