The executive due to take over as CEO of the Israeli spyware company behind the Pegasus program quits after the business was blacklisted by the US Commerce Department.
Isaac Benbenisti, who joined the company in August, was named on October 31 as the future replacement for CEO Shalev Hulio, an NSO co-founder who was due to take on new roles as vice chairman and global president.
Hulio will stay on as CEO for the time being, and Benbenisti will leave the company.
In July this year we covered Pegasus, a spyware created by an Israeli company — NSO Group — which can infect iPhone and Android devices.
NSO Group claimed at the time that it sells the spyware to only legitimate government entities fighting crime and terrorism.
But international media outlets conducted and released the results of an investigation which seemed to suggest otherwise.
The company was now accused of assisting in the surveillance, spying on and possibly even clandestine and subversive state activities against political opponents, journalists and activists.
Why the CEO of NSO Group is quitting, not even into his tenure
In a resignation letter, Benbenisti wrote to NSO’s chairman Asher Levy that “in light of the special circumstances that have arisen” following the US decision, and not being able to carry out his vision for NSO, he “would not be able to assume the position of CEO with the company”.
Staffed by veterans of top Israeli military intelligence units, NSO has been trying to defend its reputation after an investigation by 17 media organisations published in July said its Pegasus software had targeted smartphones of journalists, rights activists and government officials in several countries.
Last week the US Commerce Department added NSO to its trade blacklist, saying it sold spyware to foreign governments that used the equipment to target government officials, journalists and others.
Being blacklisted by Washington means that exports to NSO from US counterparts are restricted, making it harder for US security researchers to sell them information about computer vulnerabilities.
After he was named as future CEO, Benbenisti, who previously served six-and-a-half years as CEO of telecoms group Partner Communications, had he was “impressed with the high moral standards, ethical framework and compliance policies that streamlines throughout everything NSO Group does.”
The company “will struggle”
NSO, which said it was “dismayed” by the US blacklist decision, reiterated that it has ended contracts with government agencies that misused products it promotes as legitimate tools to help crime-fighting authorities battle terrorism.
The company sends its products abroad under licences from Israel’s Defence Ministry, which launched an investigation of the company’s practices after the alleged software misuse emerged. No results have been announced.
An NSO source said the company was contesting the US decision and had been in touch with clients in Europe.
“We have their support. There have been no changes to the company nor cancellations of contracts at this time,” the source said.
Lev Topor, from the Center for Cyber Law and Policy at the University of Haifa in northern Israel, said NSO’s future could depend on whether other countries follow the US lead.
“It might be they might be blocked in the US but not elsewhere, and the US can of course still hire their services via third parties by proxy,” said Topor.
“If governments worldwide and particularly the Israeli government would make it hard for them to do business, they will struggle.”