Many people probably heard of NSO for the first time in December 2018, when a New York Times story that claimed the company helped Saudi Arabia spy on the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi before he was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October of last year.A reader who wanted to learn more about NSO would understandably turn to Google search, where, in some cases the first result would be a Google Ad campaign paid for by NSO. The ads are not visible at the time of publication but Motherboard has seen them multiple times over the last few days. Ads for NSO’s new site came up when searching for the company’s name, but also when searching for the name and words such as “abuse,” and “human rights.”
“Nothing has been proven.”
NSO's new website features buzzwordy statements on how the company operates (“We take a pioneering approach to applying rigorous, ethical standards to everything we do”) and tries to lure new hires by showcasing employees enjoying the company's game room and doing pilates. The site also claims NSO’s tech helps “save thousands of lives around the globe.”NSO Group’s marketing campaign has been accompanied by what appears to be a carefully orchestrated public relations tour. In the last few weeks, NSO’s founders gave an extensive on the record interview to Yedioth Ahronoth, and sat down with CBS News’s 60 Minutes, allowing cameras inside the company’s office for the first time.In interviews for the Yedioth Ahronoth story and the 60 Minutes feature, NSO executives didn’t share a lot of new information about the company, but took the opportunity to deny any abuses of its technology, and strongly deny Pegasus had any role in the killing of Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
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In Yedioth Ahronoth, NSO Group claimed to have helped stop “several very big terror attacks in Europe,” and have a crucial role in bringing down Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán. Talking to 60 Minutes, NSO Group’s co-founder Shalev Hulio said Pegaus spyware has helped save “tens of thousands of people.”This sudden openness comes at a crucial time for the company.In the last three years, researchers at Citizen Lab, an academic group at the University of Toronto’s Munk School that studies how new technologies impact human rights, has uncovered around 30 cases where NSO spyware was used to target human rights activists and journalists in countries like Mexico, United Arab Emirates, but also Canada. In the summer of last year, Amnesty International accused the company of providing malware to someone who targeted one of its researchers. Then in November, Forbes found that someone had attempted to hack a Saudi dissident in London with NSO’s malware.
”You can dress up Frankenstein all you want, but deep down he's still a monster.”
NSO Group’s founders also just recently regained control of the company with the help of a European private equity firm. The deal valued the company at around 1 billion, according to reports. As a result of the deal, some financial firms have taken a look at the company, revealing interesting new details about it, such as the fact that the company has more than 60 customers in 35 countries, and around 600 employees.