U.S. Confirms: 'Continued Dialog' With Israel Over NSO’s Inclusion on Blacklist

Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO was added to the blacklist after a series of investigations revealed that it's Pegasus spyware had been against journalists and human rights activists. Sources familiar with the case say that Israel has officially decided to intervene in the matter – partly because of concern that other companies offering offensive cyber tools could be blacklisted, harming the entire industry. The State Department recently confirmed for the first time to Shomrim that there has been contact with Israel on the issue. The Prime Minister’s Office refused to respond

Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO was added to the blacklist after a series of investigations revealed that it's Pegasus spyware had been against journalists and human rights activists. Sources familiar with the case say that Israel has officially decided to intervene in the matter – partly because of concern that other companies offering offensive cyber tools could be blacklisted, harming the entire industry. The State Department recently confirmed for the first time to Shomrim that there has been contact with Israel on the issue. The Prime Minister’s Office refused to respond

Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO was added to the blacklist after a series of investigations revealed that it's Pegasus spyware had been against journalists and human rights activists. Sources familiar with the case say that Israel has officially decided to intervene in the matter – partly because of concern that other companies offering offensive cyber tools could be blacklisted, harming the entire industry. The State Department recently confirmed for the first time to Shomrim that there has been contact with Israel on the issue. The Prime Minister’s Office refused to respond

Uri Blau

Photo: Shutterstock

July 19, 2022

Summary

Last week, Shomrim, in conjunction with ProPublica, revealed that Israeli cybersecurity company NSO has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in the past year on lobbyists, attorneys, and public relations experts in the United States, following its inclusion last November on the U.S. Commerce Department’s list of restricted companies. Working on NSO’s behalf, they contacted senators, congresspeople, and journalists in an effort to get NSO removed from the blacklist. The company also tried to use the visits to Israel of U.S. President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to raise the issue.

Various officials with knowledge of the issue have told Shomrim that the Israeli government has been working with NSO and Candiru (the second Israel cyber company added to the U.S. blacklist) in its contacts with the Biden administration. These officials also told Shomrim that the blacklist was indeed raised in meetings between the working teams of the Israeli government and the U.S. administration during Biden’s visit last week. According to these officials, it remains unclear whether these discussions have had any impact on the administration’s position.

The officials expressed their frustration at Israel’s conduct vis-à-vis the Americans. They accuse the government of acting “blindly” since the reasons that the two Israeli companies were included in the blacklist are not transparent, limiting the scope for any dialog with the Americans. They added that, in the absence of any clarifications from the administration, the Defense Ministry would be limited in suggesting a framework for regulatory oversight of Israeli cybersecurity companies that would satisfy American demands.

U.S President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Lapid signs a new strategic U.S.-Israel partnership. Photo: Reuters
Various officials with knowledge of the issue have told Shomrim that the Israeli government has been working with NSO and in its contacts with the Biden administration. According to these officials, it remains unclear whether these discussions have had any impact on the administration’s position.

Contacts with the United States are spearheaded by the National Security Council, which is part of the Prime Minister's Office. One official who works in the defense industry explains that Israel’s concerted effort to help NSO and Candiru is motivated by a concern that additional cybersecurity companies could find themselves in a similar situation – which could impact dozens of such companies in Israel and on one of the country’s most important export sectors. It has been reported several times that Israel used its cybersecurity industry to advance its political and economic interests in various different countries. Israel is also keen on the continued development of advanced cybersecurity capabilities which could be used by the defense establishment. Without foreign clients buying these products, Israel would be forced to foot the hefty bill for the development of these tools.

While the inclusion of Israeli companies on the U.S. blacklist is an unusual step when it comes to the Israeli arms industry, the fact that the Israeli government has become involved comes as no surprise: a recent Shomrim investigation – unrelated to NSO – examined in-depth the willingness of the Israeli government to work on behalf of the country’s military-industrial complex.

As mentioned, it is not clear whether the discussions between representatives of the two governments have had any influence on the American position, but there has been a marked change in the tone used by U.S. officials when talking about NSO. Shomrim submitted a series of questions to the State Department on the issue and, for the first time, received confirmation that there had been direct contact between the two governments on the issue. A State Department spokesperson told Shomrim that “the United States remains a steadfast friend and partner of Israel. We have raised the conduct of these companies with the Government of Israel. The United States remains committed to securing fair treatment for Israel across the international system and calling out instances in which Israel is unfairly targeted or singled out.

The spokesperson added that “we are engaged in continuous dialogue with the Government of Israel about ensuring that these companies’ products are not used to target human rights defenders, journalists, and other individuals who should be protected. Beyond that, we decline to discuss our private diplomatic conversations.”

Shomrim also asked the White House to comment. The White House Press Secretary also issued a rare official comment on the matter, saying that “the White House has not been and is not involved in considering any requests to remove a foreign commercial spyware company from the Entity List.”

Protestors hold placards and a banner during a protest attended by about a dozen people outside the offices of the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group in Herzliya, July 25, 2021. REUTERS
While the inclusion of Israeli companies on the U.S. blacklist is an unusual step when it comes to the Israeli arms industry, the fact that the Israeli government has become involved comes as no surprise: a recent Shomrim investigation – unrelated to NSO – examined in-depth the willingness of the Israeli government to work on behalf of the country’s military-industrial complex.

The Biden administration added NSO to the Commerce Department’s blacklist last November after a series of investigations revealed how the company’s Pegasus spyware was being used. According to the reports, the spyware can remotely access data on smartphones and can even locate and record the owner. Investigations revealed how Pegasus was used by foreign governments and dictators against human rights activists, journalists, and others.

NSO said at the time of the U.S. administration’s decision to add it to the blacklist that it would work to have the move reversed. The lobbyists and lawyers it hired contacted journalists, media outlets, and research institutions, as well Senators Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD), and Congressmen Tom Malinowski (D-NJ) and Mike Turner (R-OH). They also distributed brochures created by NSO, in which the company undertook to investigate any misuse of its products. As part of its outreach to American officials, the company offered “to work with the United States administration to identify and develop global standards to represent shared values and to help protect the citizens of the United States and human rights activists from any concerns over privacy.”

It is worth noting that, thus far, NSO has not taken any legal action in the United States to try and overturn its inclusion on the blacklist. Sources familiar with the issue say that the company wants to continue working in the U.S. and, as long as that remains a possibility, a head-on confrontation with the authorities would not serve the company’s interests.

The Prime Minister’s Office and NSO did not respond to questions.

This is a summary of shomrim's story published in Hebrew.
To read the full story click here.