Will Try to Ensure Pegasus Doesn't Fall Into Wrong Hands: Israeli Foreign Minister

“Once you have sold the jet, the cannon, the gun... or Pegasus, it is in the hands of the government who bought it."

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New Delhi: Israeli foreign minister Yair Lapid on Wednesday said that his country will work to ensure the NSO Group’s spyware does not fall into the wrong hands, but also played down criticism of Israel’s regulation of the company.

Lapid, according to the Associated Press, said the government has only limited control over how customers use defence exports. Despite that, he claimed, Israel was making efforts to ensure that there were safeguards in place to stem the abuse of such weaponry.

“We are going to look at this again,” Lapid said. “We’re going to make sure, or try to make sure to the extent of what is doable and what is not, that nobody is misusing anything that we sell.”

The NSO Group is the manufacturer of Pegasus spyware, and claims it only sells this commodity to “vetted governments”. However, earlier this year, The Wire and 16 media partners uncovered how the phone numbers of journalists, human rights activists, lawyers, political leaders and others in different parts of the world were also a leaked database of potential Pegasus targets.

This consortium, known as the Pegasus Project, confirmed 300 of the numbers on the list belonged to Indians. The spyware infection can be confirmed only if forensic analysis is carried out on the mobile phones in question; confirmation for the infection was found on more than 10 Indian devices from the list.

The NSO Group has denied all wrongdoing, despite these revelations. The purpose of Pegasus, it claims, is only to catch terrorists and criminals, and not for illegal surveillance. However, as The Wire has reported, the NSO Group’s response to how it tackles allegations of misuse has only raised more questions.

The company’s founders have also defended the Pegasus spyware, amidst calls for a global moratorium on its sale. “It’s horrible,” NSO Group founder Omri Lavie said of the reports of the attacks on journalists and other abuse. “I am not minimising it. But this is the price of doing business. … This technology was used to handle literally the worst this planet has to offer. Somebody has to do the dirty work.”

Lapid, AP reported, said that while he had heard “rumours” about the NSO Group, the government could not track each purchase to see what the customer did with the product. He compared spyware to other defence equipment, saying, “Once you have sold the jet, the cannon, the gun or the missile, or Pegasus, it is in the hands of the government who bought it. So we’re trying our best to make sure it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. But no one has an ability to fully protect the other side after it was sold.”

He did, however, add that the Israeli government was working to ensure that the spyware was not used “against civilians or against dissidents”.

In July, soon after the Pegasus Project began to make public the details of the leaked database, Israel’s National Security Council reportedly decided to look into the allegations. The Council answers to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and has broader areas of expertise than the Defence Ministry, which oversees exports of NSO Group’s Pegasus software. However, details of what this probe will entail have not been made public.

Read all The Wire’s coverage under the Pegasus Project here.