Some foreigners have access to the secret world of the NSO group, the Israeli manufacturer of spyware Pegasus, at the center of the global telephone hacking scandal. Former French Ambassador Gerard Arrott was one of them.
Shortly after Donald Trump stepped down as French ambassador to Washington during the turbulent years of his presidency, the recently retired diplomat began advising on human rights issues and secured a consulting position with the NSO in 2019.
“I went there because I was interested, this is a new world (for me),” Mr Arad, the French ambassador to Israel for many years, told AFP by phone. 2000.
In NSO offices, he finds the usual context of a technological start-up: groups of programmers “between the ages of 25 and 30, flip-flops, black T-shirts, all with a doctorate in computer science. Science (computer science). . “
After a series of negative news, he explored how the company could improve its human rights record, his one-year mission since September 2019, along with two other US external advisers.
Earlier that year, the group’s technology tried to spy on or spy on Saudi journalist Jamal Kashoki, who was assassinated by Saudi security forces, which the NSO denied.
The company was acquired in 2019 by Novelpina, a London-based private equity firm, which has been tasked with making recommendations aimed at making security practices “more rigorous and a little more systematic”. Appointed Arath.
– The back door? –
Since Monday, a coalition of media outlets, including the Washington Post, the Guardian and Le Mont, has exposed alleged shortcomings in the practice.
Prohibited Stories and Amnesty International received a list of 50,000 phone numbers that have been selected by NSO customers since 2016 for tracking, and shared with this consortium of 17 media outlets.
The NSO panel has denied the existence of such a list, which includes human rights activists, journalists, opposition politicians and even world leaders.
Pegasus is considered one of the most powerful cell phone hacking tools available, allowing clients to secretly read all messages of targets, track their location, and use the camera and microphone remotely.
Its exports are restricted “like arms sales,” Mr. Arad explains. The NSO must therefore obtain the approval of the Israeli government to sell it, and the customer countries must sign a lengthy trade agreement on how the product will be used.
The company’s business argument – they should only appoint Pegasus to fight organized crime or terrorism, but “we were able to see all possible slips – and the company is not always responsible”, the former ambassador underlined.
Was there a way for the company to verify the actual deployment of its program that some would like to see banned? Gerrard Arad did not believe it. According to him, the only alien the company has after selling Pegasus is to stop giving customers software updates if they are proven to be in breach of contract terms.
“It’s a small private company, with a few dozen employees. I do not think there can be any follow-up,” he says.
In a company that adheres to “a form of top secret”, however, he believed the NSO group was operating with the Israeli Mossad secret service, and may be with the CIA.
According to him, three Americans on the group’s advisory board are U.S. citizens. The company said it had ties to the spy agency and could not use its technology to target U.S.-based numbers.
“There was this question about the existence of Mossad or the CIA. I thought it was both, but I have no evidence, no evidence. But I think Mossad and the CIA are behind this. Can, the resulting collected intelligence.
Israel has denied access to Pegasus information.
– No regrets –
Mr Arad, an active Twitter user, has faced online criticism for his decision to work for a company allegedly involved in human rights abuses.
“I’m right in my boots,” he said. “I have no regrets”.
“We are undergoing a technological change and I hope it will change our lives,” he added, adding that the question of whether these technologies can be “civilized” remained open.
He could not say if there was any impact on his work and his advice: “I put forward plans. I don’t know if some have been approved.”
© 2021 AFP