Israeli surveillance company NSO Group has temporarily blocked several clients from using its technologies as it investigates claims of misuse, American non-profit media organisation NPR reported on Thursday, quoting an employee.
The NSO Group has said that it sells its “technologies solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments”. The company also claims that the Pegasus spyware is meant to target criminals.
The alleged misuse of the spyware came to light earlier this month when Paris-based media nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International accessed a database featuring more than 50,000 phone numbers “concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens”.
Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International shared the list with Indian news website The Wire and 16 other media organisations across the world, who did extensive reporting on the matter. Their investigation is called the Pegasus Project.
An unidentified employee of the firm on Thursday said that the company was cooperating with the investigation of the Israeli officials. The employee also told NPR that the company is trying to prove to Israeli officials that the individuals named in the media reports are not Pegasus targets.
The employee spoke anonymously as the NSO Group’s policy states that the company “will no longer be responding to media inquiries on this matter and it will not play along with the vicious and slanderous campaign” against it.
The employee also said that it cannot name any of the government agencies that can no longer access technologies of the NSO Group as Israel’s defence regulations prohibit it from identifying any clients.
NSO Group, however, has said that it has 60 customers in 40 countries. The company said that in recent years, before the current allegations of misuse, it had blocked from five governmental agencies after finding evidence. The suspended clients include Saudi Arabia, Dubai and some public agencies in Mexico, according to The Washington Post.
NSO Group general counsel Shmuel Sunray said the scrutiny faced by the company was unfair as it was itself conducting an investigation on the alleged misuse of its technologies.
“What we [NSO Group] are doing is, what I think today is, the best standard that can be done,” Sunray told NPR. “We are on the one hand, I think, the world leaders in our human rights compliance, and the other hand we are the poster child of human rights abuse.”
Earlier on Thursday, France’s cybersecurity agency confirmed that the Pegasus spyware was present on the phone of two journalists from the country’s online investigative journal Mediapart. This is the first corroboration of the alleged surveillance row by a government agency globally.
World leaders such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan are also among the list of potential targets of the spyware, according to The Wire.
The Indian part of the list includes phone numbers used by at least 40 Indian journalists, Opposition leaders including Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, two Union ministers and virologist Gagandeep Kang. Former Election Commissioner of India Ashok Lavasa and an ex-Supreme Court staffer who accused former Chief Justice of India Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment also featured on the list.
NSO has, however, maintained that reports about the misuse of Pegasus spyware were “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”. Israeli defence ministry officials on Wednesday inspected the offices of NSO Group on the surveillance allegations.