The Israeli government is forming a special team to manage the fallout from reports that software developed by the Israeli company NSO has been used by governments around the world to spy on journalists, human rights activists and possibly world leaders, two Israeli officials tell me.
Why it matters: So far, this has mainly been a media crisis for Israel. But senior Israeli officials are concerned it could turn into a diplomatic crisis.
Send the news: An international consortium of investigative journalists reported Sunday that NSO’s “Pegasus” software — designed to track down terrorists and criminals — had become a valuable tool for governments to spy on journalists and critics. Among the countries listed as NSO customers in the reports are Hungary, India, and Saudi Arabia.
- Israeli officials told Axios that NSO’s export license contained terms about spyware abuse. The reports would likely affect future deals with NSO and other Israeli companies.
- “It is a very substantial crisis,” a senior Israeli official told me. “We are trying to fully understand its implications. We will need to assess whether the reports about NSO prompt a change in our policy on the export of offensive cyber technology to other countries.”
What they say: A hint of the possible diplomatic ramifications was given on Wednesday by British cybertsar Lindy Cameron.
- “We are now seeing that states that can’t build high-end capability can buy it,” Cameron said at a cyber conference in Tel Aviv, adding that it was “vital that all cyber actors use the capabilities in a way that is legal, responsible and proportionate to ensure that cyberspace remains a safe and prosperous place for all. And we will work with allies to achieve this.”
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaking at the same conference, said Israel is “studying” reports of alleged use of the Pegasus software in violation of the terms of its export license.
- NSO continues to deny the reports and claim to have taken all possible steps to ensure that the software was not used for anything other than fighting crime and terrorism.
Data: The interagency team includes representatives from the Department of Defense, which is responsible for defense export licensing, the Department of State, the Department of Justice, the Mossad spy agency, military intelligence and other agencies.
What’s next: The team plans to engage with the NSO about the reports while limiting damage to the diplomatic, security and legal consequences, Israeli officials said.