Israel: CEO of Pegasus Spyware Firm NSO to Step Down

Published: 23 August 2022

Pegasus Spyware JordanThe firm’s sophisticated spyware Pegasus can gain entry to a target’s mobile phone without requiring them to click on a link, or take any action at all. (Photo: Gerd Altmann, Pixabay, License)

By Inci Sayki

Israeli cyber arms firm NSO Group that produced the infamous Pegasus software, which some repressive regimes have used to spy on dissidents and journalists, has announced on Sunday that co-founder and longtime chief executive Shalev Hulio will be stepping down as part of an internal reorganization.

NSO Group also said that it will focus sales to countries belonging to the NATO military alliance.

Until the board appoints a new CEO, the firm’s chief operating officer Yaron Shobat will “take the lead” and oversee the restructuring process, said the firm’s statement. The company will also lay off 100 of its 700 employees.

The reorganization will “examine all aspects of its business, including streamlining its operations to ensure NSO remains one of the world’s leading high-tech cyber intelligence companies, focusing on NATO-member countries,” the statement said.

As detailed in the 2021 Pegasus Project, a collaborative investigation into the spyware company packed with former Israeili military intelligence personnel, the Pegasus software can be used to infiltrate mobile phones, extract data, access geolocation, and activate cameras or microphone - all without the target’s awareness.

A consortium of reporters, including the OCCRP, have unveiled that the spyware has been deployed by corrupt governments against human rights activists, journalists, politicians, government officials, and at least ten heads of state including French president Emmanuel Macron.

While NSO is a privately owned company, Israel’s Ministry of Defense must approve any exports since the spyware is classified as a weapon.

The firm’s clients include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, Hungary and India.

The New York Times reported in March that the Israeli government blocked the sales of Pegasus to Estonia and Ukraine in fear that it would damage Israel’s relations with Russia.

NSO Group was blacklisted by the Biden administration in November 2021 for acting “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the U.S.” A week after the blacklisting, an executive of the NSO Group who was due to replace Hulio as chief executive, resigned from the company.

In April, the European Parliament launched a committee to investigate Pegasus and “whether this use has breached EU law and fundamental rights.”

The firm insists its signature software is only meant to go after terrorists and criminals and denies any wrongdoing; a position reinstated in their Sunday statement.

“NSO will ensure that the company’s groundbreaking technologies are used for rightful and worthy purposes,” the statement said.