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Next CEO of Israeli spyware NSO Group resigns

Days after the US blacklisted Israeli spyware company NSO Group for acting against its foreign policy and national security interests, an executive due to take over as the Chief Executive of the tech firm has quit.

A spokesperson of the Israeli company confirmed local media reports that its CEO-designate Isaac Benbenisti’s decision to resign.

“Shalev Hulio, the co-founder and CEO of NSO Group, announced that he will remain in his position as CEO for the near future, due to the need for stability and continuity during this period,” an NSO spokesperson told PTI.

Benbenisti, who joined the company in August, was named on October 31 as the future replacement for Hulio, who was due to take on new roles as vice-chair and global President, media reports said.

Israel distanced itself from the controversy triggered by the NSO Group after the US blacklisted the tech firm which had developed the Pegasus spyware that was allegedly used to target government officials, activists and journalists globally, saying that it is a private company and it has nothing to do with the policies of the Israeli government.

”NSO is a private company, it is not a governmental project and therefore even if it is designated, it has nothing to do with the policies of the Israeli government,” Israel’s Foreign Minister, Yair Lapid, said at a joint press conference with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the PMO on Saturday last week.

”I don’t think there is another country in the world which has such strict rules according to cyber warfare and that is imposing those rules more than Israel and we will continue to do so,” Lapid stressed.

The Israeli Foreign Minister’s remarks came after the US sanctioned the Herzliya-based company over alleged misuse of its phone-hacking spyware in countries across the world, including in India.

The US Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Industry and Security (BIS) added the NSO Group and Candiru to the Entity List for engaging in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.

It said in a statement that they were added to the Entity List based on evidence that it developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers.

These tools have also enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent. Such practices threaten the rules-based international order, the US commerce department said.

Amid raging controversy worldwide, Israel established a committee in July to review the allegations of misuse of the NSO group’s surveillance software and hinted at a possible ”review of the whole matter of giving licences”.

Hulio had welcomed the move saying they would “be very pleased if there were an investigation so that we’d be able to clear our name”.

He had also claimed that there was an effort “to smear the whole Israeli cyber industry”.

The NSO head had also emphasised that his company could not disclose the details of its contracts due to “issues of confidentiality,” but, ”he would offer full transparency to any government seeking more details”.

“Let any state entity come along, any official from any state, and I’ll be prepared to open everything up to them, for them to enter, to dig around from top to bottom,” Hulio then said.

Israel’s defence ministry had in a statement had also threatened that if it finds that the NSO Group violated the terms of its export licenses, it will “take appropriate action”.

The ministry said in July that Israel only permits companies to export cybersecurity products to “government figures only for legal purposes and to prevent and investigate crimes and to combat terrorism.

And this is dependent upon commitments regarding the end use/user from the purchasing country, which must abide by these conditions”.

Later, reports of the committee members ”raiding” NSO’s facilities was widely reported in the media.

The company has maintained that its spyware is used by its government clients to target terrorists and other serious crimes. PTI

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