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Pegasus spyware: Chairman of NSO group resigns

Asher Levy denied that long-running reports on the use of the controversial spyware had been a factor in his decision
An Israeli uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the NSO group in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, 28 August 2016 (AFP)

The chairman of Israeli electronics firm NSO Group has resigned, following more than a year of reports in the media about the company's controversial Pegasus spyware.

NSO confirmed to AFP the departure of Asher Levy, who was appointed chairman in 2020, but denied that his exit was linked to the Pegasus controversy or an investigation announced by the Israeli justice ministry into its use on Israeli citizens.

"Contrary to recent media reports... there is no connection between the termination of my position and recent publications linked to the NSO," Levy said in a statement sent by the firm, which is based in a Tel Aviv suburb.

Pegasus, which can switch on a phone's camera or microphone and harvest its data, was at the centre of a storm last year after a list of about 50,000 potential surveillance targets worldwide was leaked to the media.

Last week, Israel's justice minister pledged a full investigation into allegations that Pegasus was used on Israeli citizens, including people who led protests against former premier Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Israeli police, under the leadership of a former Shin Bet officer, bought the spyware in 2013. It was authorised for use by senior police officers in recent years and handled by the Signet unit. 

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Levy said that, after a change of ownership of the company last year, "I remained as chairman until a replacement was appointed on the new fund's behalf at the end of 2021.

"Any attempts to present this move as a present-day resignation as a result of any publication related to NSO are completely false and twisting reality," he added.

In November, the US blacklisted the NSO Group, saying its activities were contrary to its national security interests.

The company says its Pegasus software helps fight crime, but investigators have found it on the phones of journalists and dissidents. Calcalist reported that Pegasus was "an easy option" for the Israeli police to collect evidence.

During Netanyahu's tenure as prime minister, which ended in June 2021, Pegasus was part of an Israeli "cyber diplomacy" push to forge closer ties with countries in Africa and the Gulf. The software has been used by governments, including MoroccoSaudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to illegally access the phone data of activists and journalists worldwide.

Also in November, a source close to NSO said the firm's designated chief executive, Isaac Benbenisti, was resigning, just days after it was announced he was taking up the role. Benbenisti had been tapped to succeed founder and CEO Shalev Hulio, who was due to become global president and vice chairman of the board. The source said at the time that "because of the crisis with the US... Shalev decided that he still will sit on the chair of the CEO".