NSO Group CEO Claims BDS Is Probably Behind Damning Investigation

"I don't want to sound cynical now, but there are those who don't want [Israel] to import ice cream or export technologies."
NSO
Image: JOEL SAGET/AFP via Getty Images

Shalev Hulio, the CEO and cofounder of NSO, the Israeli surveillance company at the center of a bombshell investigation this week that found its tools have been used to spy on journalists, politicians, and human rights activists around the world, is now suggesting that the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that's trying to pressure Israel to end its occupation of Palestine is somehow behind the story.

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Either it or Qatar.

Hulio mentioned the conspiracy in an interview with Israel Hayom, the free, right-wing daily newspaper funded by the casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who died earlier this year. 

"It looks like someone decided to step on our head," Hulio said. "There's an attack on [Israel's cyber industry] generally. After all, there are so many cyber intelligence companies in the world, but everyone just focuses on Israelis. To make a consortium of journalists from all over the world like this and bring in Amnesty [a key partner in the investigation]—it looks like there's a deliberate hand here."

When asked whose hand exactly, Hulio elaborated:

"I believe that in the end it's either Qatar or BDS or both," he said. "In the end it's always the same entities. I don't want to sound cynical now, but there are those who don't want [Israel] to import ice cream or export technologies."

Hulio is referring to Ben and Jerry's recent decision not to sell its ice cream in Israeli-occupied territories following years of BDS campaigns. Hulio also said that he doesn't think it's a coincidence that the investigation about his company dropped around the same time that another Israeli surveillance company, Cellebrite, is being challenged by digital rights group while attempting to go public, and the publication of an investigation about Candiru, yet another Israeli surveillance company. 

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"It's just illogical that this is all happening at once," he said.

BDS is a broad, Palestinian-led, global movement that fights for Palestinian human rights that is modeled after the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. It is also vilified in right-wing circles in Israel and the U.S., which have passed anti-BDS laws.

"Israel's NSO Group is now exposed to the world as deeply implicated in very serious crimes and grave human rights violations worldwide, so it is expectedly desperate to deflect by fabricating pathetic conspiracy theories,” BDS co-founder Omar Barghouti told Motherboard. “Israel's spyware and military technologies are field-tested on Indigenous Palestinians under Israeli occupation and apartheid and then exported to the world as tools of repression and war crimes. It is time the world held apartheid Israel accountable, as apartheid South Africa once was, and not just for the sake of Palestinians but for the sake of world peace and justice as well."

Amnesty and Hulio did not immediately respond to a request for comment. 

Hulio went through NSO's usual talking points in the rest of the interview: He claimed NSO has a rigorous process for selecting which countries it sells its products to, that the company limits how many targets a client can track and in which territories, that it has strong agreements that clearly state who clients can and can't track, and that it will cut off a client if it breaks those agreements. He said that NSO has cut off five clients in recent years. 

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When pressed for answers about how NSO can say its technology is not being abused by governments if NSO can't see who those governments are spying on, Hulio deflected. 

"I don't understand," he said. "Mercedes sells a car, and then it's driven by a drunk driver who kills someone. Does anyone blame Mercedes? … If people have complaints they should go to the governments that spied on journalists and claim they are violating human rights."

Hulio is right that Israel is a top cyber superpower with a thriving, private cybersecurity industry, and over the years Motherboard has repeatedly covered Israeli companies like NSO, Cellebrite, Candiru, and others, and how their technologies are being used around the world. 

While Hulio said that "everyone just focuses on Israelis," in the last 10 years, researchers at non-profits such as Amnesty or the Citizen Lab, as well as cybersecurity companies such as Lookout and Kaspersky Lab, have published reports on NSO's competitors: Italy's Hacking Team, Germany's FinFisher, Indian-German Wolf Intelligence, and many others. Those reports have received widespread media attention. 

Blaming a foreign government is a true-and-tested strategy for the leaders of companies that sell spyware to law enforcement and intelligence agencies around the world. In 2015, when an anarchist hacker broke into the servers of Hacking Team and spilled all its secrets online, the company CEO blamed it all on a hacker working for an unspecified government, before he changed his mind and blamed it on former employees. Italian prosecutors found no evidence the former employees were involved in any way, no one has evidence the hackers was working on behalf of a government spy agency, and the hacker remains at large. 

NSO's responses to the stories published by a consortium of 17 media outlets working in partnership with Amnesty International and French non profit Forbidden Stories have varied over the last few days. 

On Wednesday, NSO's press agency said in an email to reporters that “Enough is enough!" and the company would no longer answer questions about the Pegasus Project revelations. And yet, Forbes published an interview with Hulio on Thursday, and Israel Hayom published its interview on Thursday as well.

Update: This story has been updated with comment from BDS.