Israel to examine tighter controls on export of spywares

The logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group is seen at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel on 22 July 2021Reuters

An Israeli commission reviewing allegations that NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was misused by its customers to target journalists and human rights activists would examine whether rules for Israel’s export of cyberweapons such as Pegasus should be tightened, a senior MP said, The Guardian reported.

The move came after French President Emmanuel Macron convened an emergency cybersecurity meeting following reports that his mobile phone and those of government ministers appeared in the leaked list.

An official in Macron’s Elysee Palace said that the President’s phone and phone numbers had been changed.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, added her voice to the escalating controversy on Thursday, telling reporters in Berlin that spyware such as NSO’s should be denied to countries where there was no judicial oversight, after it emerged 14 heads of state were on the list, the report added.

Asked whether she regretted that technology sold by NSO Group had helped to undermine freedom of expression in countries governed by autocratic regimes, Merkel said: “I believe it is important that software developed for certain situations does not fall into the wrong hands. There have to be restrictive conditions and such software should not be sold to countries where judicial oversight over such attacks cannot be guaranteed.”

The growing fallout from the revelations of the Pegasus project, a collaboration of 17 media organisations including The Guardian, which launched on Sunday with a series of claims about misuse of the software, has continued to resonate.

In Israel the prospect of tighter controls on the export of spyware such as Pegasus was raised by Ram Ben-Barak, the head of parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee - and a former deputy head of the Mossad spy agency - on Army Radio as he disclosed that Israel’s “defence establishment [has] appointed a review commission made up of a number of groups”, The Guardian said.

“We certainly have to look anew at this whole subject of licenses granted by DECA [Israel’s Defence Exports Control Agency]. When they finish their review, we’ll demand to see the results and assess whether we need to make corrections,” he said.

DECA is within Israel’s defence ministry and oversees NSO exports. The ministry and the company have said Pegasus is meant to be used to track terrorists and criminals only, and that all foreign clients are vetted governments.

The alleged misuse has stirred questions within Naftali Bennet’s cross-partisan coalition, one of whose members, the liberal party Meretz, questioned the defence minister, Benny Gantz, about NSO exports in a meeting on Thursday, the report added.

Gantz “emphasised the importance of upholding human rights within the framework of weapons sales”, a joint statement said.