Yaron Shohat is “the right choice at the right time”, the outgoing head of the Israeli NSO Group praised his successor. He will make a “very significant” contribution to the further development of the software company. In the statement at the end of August, Shalev Hulio, who stepped down as CEO but remains associated with NSO, also spoke of an upcoming “reorganization” of the company in order to “prepare for the next phase of growth”.
In fact, Yaron Shohat is said to be leading a restructuring process. This is an enormous challenge for the previous head of operations, who has been with the company since 2018. Because the NSO Group, founded in 2010, has had phenomenal success, but at the same time slipped deep into the crisis last year. That’s thanks to the company’s most famous and notorious product: the Pegasus spy software.
The most notorious spy software in the world
The program is considered the most powerful on the market. Unlike many other spyware programs, it is possible to inject Pegasus onto an iOS or Android smartphone without the user having to click a link in a message. Pegasus was first detected in 2016. Over the years, NSO has added more and more capabilities to the software. An infected phone can be fully spied out, including saved passwords, conversations can be recorded, microphone and camera activated.
NSO has always insisted that Pegasus is only being sold for the purpose of fighting crime. The new boss also points to this. In a statement released by NSO, Shohat said the company’s products remain in high demand among governments and law enforcement agencies “because of its cutting-edge technology and proven ability to help these customers fight crime and terrorism.”
At the same time, the newly appointed head of the company emphasized that there had been “a number of changes” in the field of cyber intelligence in recent years. NSO will ensure, Shohat promised, “that the company’s breakthrough technologies are used for legitimate and appropriate purposes.”
Even Macron and Sánchez are affected
This was an indirect admission that this had not been the case before. The scandals surrounding the use of Pegasus have increased in recent years. Sometimes there were new revelations about activists, journalists and politicians spied on with Pegasus every week. In the summer of 2021, a coalition of numerous media, journalists and organizations reported on the possible use of Pegasus against people in dozens of countries and accused NSO of promoting “human rights abuses around the world on a massive scale”.
A list of possible victims of spying had more than 50,000 entries – including the names of heads of state and government such as Emmanuel Macron or Cyril Ramaphosa. Pegasus-infected phones have been detected in at least six EU countries, including that of Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez.
Authoritarian states such as the United Arab Emirates or Thailand are suspected to be the perpetrators of the espionage, but also Hungary. NSO does not disclose the names of its customers. In June, a company representative told an investigative committee of the EU Parliament that NSO currently had “less than 50 customers”, some of whom came from twelve EU countries. They attacked about 12,000 to 13,000 targets per year. German security authorities are also among NSO’s customers.
Banned in the US
The company based in Herzliya justifies itself, among other things, by not supplying the software to countries with a problematic human rights situation. In addition, any sale of Pegasus requires the approval of the Israeli government. At the end of 2021, this tightened the export guidelines for cyber products – according to critics, however, to an insufficient extent, just as Israel used Pegasus licenses as a diplomatic instrument at all.
Shortly before, NSO had suffered a serious blow: the USA blacklisted the company in November 2021 after Pegasus was discovered on the phones of American government employees. NSO had always said hacking of phones in the US was out of the question. Since then, American companies have been banned from doing business with NSOs. At the same time, Apple filed a lawsuit against NSO for spying on iPhones. In 2019, the Facebook group had already sued the company because of the smuggling of Pegasus via its messenger service Whatsapp.
These moves have left NSO in financial trouble. Efforts to be removed from the blacklist have so far been unsuccessful, as has an attempt to sell Pegasus to the American security technology company L3Harris.
The new boss Shohat is now to lay off 100 of the approximately 700 employees. A statement from NSO states that they want to review all business areas, streamline operations and focus more on customers in NATO countries in the future.