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US raises concern with top Israeli officials over Israeli spyware Pegasus: Report

This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris, France, on July 21, 2021. (Photo by AFP)

The United States has raised concern with senior Israeli officials regarding the accusations that spy software known as Pegasus sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group has been used by governments around the world to carry out surveillance on journalists, activists, and political leaders, potentially those government officials with close ties to Washington.

In a report on Friday, the Guardian said that Brett McGurk, a top advisor on the Middle East in the administration of US President Joe Biden, raised questions privately about NSO in a meeting last week with Zohar Palti, a senior official in Israel’s ministry of military affairs.

The report, citing reports by Axios and the Washington Post, added that Palti reportedly told McGurk that the controversy was being taken very seriously and that Tal Aviv was examining whether it was necessary to change rules around how offensive cyber-weapons were sold to other states.

The development came two weeks after a global media consortium, that includes the Guardian and 16 other media partners, reported that Pegasus spyware made by Israeli company NSO Group may have been used to target politicians, activists, and journalists in several countries.

The consortium revealed details of a massive leak of phone numbers of people who are believed to have been targeted as candidates for possible surveillance by NSO’s government clients, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Hungary.

The phone numbers of French President Emmanuel Macron and Biden’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, were said to be on a list of 50,000 contacts that is believed to have been targeted by clients of NSO Group since 2016.

Pegasus spyware can infect Apple and Android devices and monitors keystrokes, allowing users to extract messages, photos, and emails. Calls can be recorded, while microphones and cameras can be activated covertly.

Activists, journalists, officials, politicians, and business figures from dozens of countries are featured on the list, which has leaked to the press and been covered by a global consortium of news organizations.

The abuse of Pegasus software has been known for several years, though these latest revelations appear to have gained such traction in the mainstream owing to the high number of civilians who have reportedly been surveilled through its use.

Many observers believe the revelations suggest that the regime will not hesitate to share experience and technology in the field with governments that it wants to be friendly with.

In recent years, NSO Group has been accused of allowing repressive regimes to hack people, including those close to murdered dissident Saudi journalist and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Israeli authorities seem to be having a tough time trying to contain the scandal as major Western media outlets are involved in revealing the details. Israel with its high-end surveillance capabilities has always been a major player in the world of espionage.

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