Changes ahead for NSO Group, as its CEO prepares to step down in an reorganisation that will see the Israeli firm only sell to NATO countries.

NSO announced on Sunday that current CEO Shalev Hulio will step down, and he will be replaced by the firm’s current COO, Yaron Shohat, who will manage the reorganisation process.

NSO said that the company-wide reorganisation “will examine all aspects of its business, including streamlining its operations to ensure NSO remains one of the world’s leading high-tech cyber intelligence companies, focusing on NATO-member countries.”

New CEO

“NSO has achieved enormous global success and our technologies continue to help save lives worldwide,” Shalev Hulio claimed.

“The company is reorganiing to prepare for its next phase of growth,” Hulio added. “Yaron is the right choice at the right time. He will be a very significant force multiplier for the continued advancement of the company.”

“NSO is an amazing company with exceptionally talented and devoted employees,” added Yaron Shohat. “The company’s products remain in high demand with governments and law enforcement agencies because of its cutting-edge technology and proven ability to assist these customers in fighting crime and terror.”

“The global high-tech industry, has undergone a series of changes in recent years, including in the cyber intelligence sphere,” said Shohat. “NSO will ensure that the company’s groundbreaking technologies are used for rightful and worthy purposes.”

The reorganisation comes after years of problems for NSO, that saw a CEO-designate quitting before he even took the role.

In November 2021, Isaac Benbenisti, then co-president, was due to be appointed to the role of the CEO of NSO.

But before he took up the role he resigned, citing the company’s blacklisting by the US Department of Commerce in November 2021.

Being placed on the Entity List, means that exports to NSO Group from US companies have been restricted.

Difficult period

In December NSO was reportedly exploring its strategic options, that included shutting the Pegasus unit or selling the entire company.

Then in June this year it was reported that US defence contractor L3Harris was in talks to takeover NSO Group’s controversial Pegasus surveillance technology.

Discussions were centred on a sale of the Israeli company’s core technology – or code – as well as a possible transfer of NSO personnel to L3Harris.

But that deal would have faced significant challenges, not least of which would be the approval from the US and Israeli governments.

And gaining that approval would have been very challenging indeed.

US defence contractor L3Harris neither confirmed or denied at the time it was seeking to acquire NSO’s Pegasus.

Spying controversy

NSO of course has been at the centre of spying allegations for a number of years now.

Matters became even more serious in December 2020, after a report by Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto alleged that dozens of Al Jazeera journalists had been hacked with the help of Pegasus, by exploiting a vulnerability in the iPhone operating system.

Worse was to come in July 2021, when the Pegasus Project (a collaboration of more than 80 journalists and media organisations) alleged that NSO’s Pegasus had been used “to facilitate human rights violations around the world on a massive scale.”

It allegedly uncovered evidence that the phone numbers for 14 heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistan’s Imran Khan and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, as well as 600 government officials and politicians from 34 countries, had appeared in a leaked database at the heart of the investigative project.

In September last year the investigative website Mediapart alleged that traces of Pegasus spyware had even been found on the mobile phones of at least five current French cabinet ministers – deepening the diplomatic fallout.

In April this year, it was alleged that the UAE may have used NSO Pegasus spyware on Downing Street and Foreign Office computer systems.

NSO for its part, has always maintained that it only sells its Pegasus software to governments and law enforcement agencies for the purpose of tracking down terrorists and other criminals.

Legal troubles

But the firm is also currently engaged in a legal battle with both Meta and Apple.

Facebook’s Whatsapp sued NSO in October 2019, and alleged NSO was behind the cyberattack that infected WhatsApp users with advanced surveillance hacks in May 2019.

Apple also sued NSO in November last year, alleging NSO engaged in surveillance and targeting of iPhone users in the US.

Two months ago in June, the US Supreme Court asked the Biden administration for its thoughts on whether the justices should hear the case over whether WhatsApp can pursue its lawsuit of NSO.

Tom Jowitt

Tom Jowitt is a leading British tech freelancer and long standing contributor to Silicon UK. He is also a bit of a Lord of the Rings nut...

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