August 4, 2021

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A former diplomat and former NSO advisor, he had witnessed Pegasus’ “potential drifts”

Paris (AFP)

Few outsiders have access to the top-secret world of NSO Group, the Israeli spyware company Pegasus, at the center of a global phone hacking scandal. Gérard Araud, the former French ambassador, is one of them.

The retired diplomat most recently took up an advisory position with NSO in 2019, advising on human rights issues, shortly after stepping down as French ambassador to Washington during the turbulent years of Donald Trump’s presidency.

“I went there because I was interested. It was a new world (for me),” Araud, who was also France’s ambassador to Israel at the beginning of the years, told AFP by phone.

In the offices of NSO, he discovers the typical environment for a tech startup: teams of programmers “all 25-30 years old, dressed in slippers and black T-shirts, all with PhDs in computer science (computer science). They all vote left natural … “

His one-year mission starting in September 2019, along with other US outside advisers, was to study how the company could improve its human rights record after a string of negative news.

Earlier that year, the group’s technology was linked to the espionage or attempted espionage of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated by Saudi security forces, which the NSO denied.

L’entreprise a été rachetée en 2019 par un groupe de capital-investissement basé à Londres, Novalpina, qui a engage M. Araud pour qu’il émette des recommandations visant à rendre les procédures de sécurité “syet unrigoureuses plus” , according to him.

– the back door ? –

Since Monday, a consortium of media outlets, including The Washington Post, The Guardian and Le Monde, has revealed alleged flaws in these measures.

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Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International have obtained a list of 50,000 phone numbers, chosen by NSO clients since 2016 for potential surveillance, and shared it with this consortium of 17 media outlets.

The NSO Group denied the existence of such a list, which would include human rights activists, journalists, opposition politicians and even world leaders.

Pegasus is one of the most powerful cell phone hacking tools available, allowing customers to secretly read all of a target’s messages, track their location, and even use the camera and microphone from a distance.

Mr. Arrow explains that its export is regulated “like the sale of arms”. So NSO must seek Israeli government approval to sell it, and client countries sign a lengthy commercial contract stipulating how the product will be used.

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They are supposed to deploy Pegasus only to fight organized crime or terrorism – the company’s business argument – but “we can see all the potential drifts – and, moreover, for which the company has not always been responsible,” asserts the former diplomat.

Does the company have a way to verify the actual publication of their software that some would like to block? Gerard Araud can’t believe it. For him, the only leverage the company has after selling Pegasus is to stop providing software updates to customers if they are found to be in violation of the terms of the contract.

“It’s a small private company,” he says, “and there’s bound to be a few dozen employees. I don’t think there can be any follow-up.”

In a company that exercises “a kind of extreme secrecy,” he says he is nonetheless convinced that the NSO group was working with the Israeli intelligence service Mossad, and possibly with the CIA.

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According to him, three Americans on the group’s advisory board have ties to the CIA, and the company said its technology could not be used to target numbers based in the United States.

“There was a question mark about the existence of Mossad or the CIA. I thought they were both, but I had no proof and no proof. But I think Mossad and the CIA are behind it., what is known as +a backdoor” – a term meaning that the security services would Capable of monitoring the deployment of Pegasus and possibly the intelligence collected as a result.

Israel denied access to Pegasus information.

– no regret –

Mr Arrow, an active Twitter user, has faced criticism online over his decision to work for a company allegedly linked to human rights abuses.

He said, “I’m in my right shoes.” “I have no regrets.”

“I am convinced that we are in a technological transformation that will change our lives,” he adds, specifying that the question of whether these technologies can be “civilized” remains open.

He cannot say whether his work and advice had any effect: “Proposals have been made. I don’t know if some were adopted or not.”