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US military firm says spies backed its bid to purchase Israeli spyware maker: Report

This image shows an aerial view of the logo of the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, July 22, 2021. (Photo by Reuters)

A US military firm says spy agencies in the country had backed its decision to acquire NSO, the controversial Israeli spyware company blacklisted by the Joe Biden administration.

The New York Times reported on Sunday that the defense contractor L3 Harris, which has past experience in spyware technology, cited backing from intelligence officials for its effort to acquire the Israeli spyware company.

The report said a team of executives from L3 Harris quietly visited Israel numerous times in recent months in a bid to purchase NSO Group, despite Washington putting it on a blacklist for misuse of military-grade spyware named Pegasus fro espionage.

NSO had acted “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States,” the Biden administration said after blacklisting the firm in November, barring American firms from doing any business with the Israeli company.

The “zero-click” hacking tool offered via Pegasus enabled its buyers to remotely extract data from a target’s mobile phone, including messages, contacts, photos and videos without the user having to click on a phishing link to give it remote access.

It also enabled the hacker to use the target’s mobile phone as a tracking and recording device.

Pegasus has been used by world governments to hack the phones of political leaders, human rights activists and journalists worldwide.

NYT report cited five people familiar with the negotiations saying that the L3 Harris team had obtained approval from US intelligence officials to purchase NSO, whose technology has been of intense interest to intelligence and law enforcement agencies around the globe, including the FBI and the CIA.

The talks continued in secret until last month when the news about the potential sale leaked, the report said.

White House officials said they were outraged to learn about the negotiations, and that any attempt by American defense firms to purchase a blacklisted company would be met by serious resistance.

Days later, L3Harris, which relies heavily on government contracts, notified the Biden administration that it had scuttled plans to purchase NSO.

The Israeli NSO Group maintains notoriety for trying to have its spy apparatuses maintain an edge over their international counterparts.

The regime makes extensive use of Pegasus and other locally made spyware for espionage.

According to experts and observers, Tel Aviv has treated NSO as a de-facto arm of the regime, granting licenses for selling Pegasus spyware to numerous countries, to forge stronger security and diplomatic ties.

In January, NYT reported that the FBI had purchased Pegasus software in 2019.

It also stated that in 2018 the CIA had purchased Pegasus for the government of Djibouti to conduct counterterrorism operations, despite that country’s record of torturing political opposition figures and imprisoning journalists.

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