The Israeli NSO group is still on a US blacklist. But now, a US company is interested in their spy software Pegasus. There are signs of a surprising turn in the debate about the activities of the Israeli spy software provider NSO Group. According to media reports, the US armaments company L3Harris is interested in buying their surveillance technology. Accordingly, the company not only wants to take over the know-how but also the employees involved in the development of the Pegasus spyware. However, the British Guardian reported that there were still several hurdles to be overcome before making the purchase.
The L3Harris group was formed in 2019 from the merger of the former companies of L3 Technologies and Harris Corporation. With 47,000 employees and annual sales of almost 18 billion US dollars, the company is one of the largest US defense companies. The former Harris Corporation also manufactured so-called IMSI catchers for investigative authorities under the product name Stingray.
The use of the Pegasus software against US targets angered the US government last year. The iPhones of several US diplomats are said to have been hacked via Pegasus. The Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) therefore determined in November 2021 that the activities of the NSO Group were directed against national security and US foreign policy interests. The company was therefore included in a corresponding list.
The White House was initially skeptical about the takeover plans. "Such a transaction, should it take place, raises serious counterintelligence and security issues for the US government," the Guardian quoted a senior US government official under President Joe Biden. The US government will "take action against attempts by foreign companies to circumvent US export control measures or sanctions." This also applies to inclusion in the US Department of Commerce's list of malicious cyber activities.
US government announces intensive review
A transaction by a US defense contractor with a blacklisted company will not automatically result in such a company being delisted. Instead, the purchase will trigger an intensive review "to examine whether the transaction poses a threat to US government counterintelligence, and its systems and information, whether other US interests in the defense company could be at risk, the extent to which a foreign company or a foreign government retains some level of access or control, and what the broader human rights implications are. "
According to the report, the deal would also encounter hurdles in Israel. In the Israeli cyber industry, it is assumed that the supervision of the technology manufactured in Israel and the entire development of Pegasus and the personnel must remain in Israel. NSO is subject to the oversight of the Israeli Defense Ministry, which must also decide on the use of the software by other states.
It is also speculated that selling the software to a US company could severely limit its worldwide use. In addition to the Five Eyes secret service alliance, which includes the USA, Great Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, future users could also have some NATO allies.
However, there are doubts that the secret services have enough trust in the software to use it for essential spying operations. According to the report, John Scott-Railton, a researcher at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, assumes that Pegasus would be more likely to be sold to local authorities. "So where would be the big market? I'm afraid the logical buyers would be the US police departments. This would be an unprecedented threat to our civil liberties," he told the Guardian.