Talks are said to be underway between one of the major US defence companies and the Israeli NSO Group to acquire the controversial Pegasus spyware. But that is not possible without the green light from both governments.
L3Harris is one of the largest defence specialists and supplies military equipment, among other things. According to the Financial Times, Washington Post, The Guardian and Haaretz, among others, the company is currently in talks with NSO, although they are still early and the deal is far from final.
It is not about selling NSO as a company, but specifically about Pegasus, the code and the people who work on the spy software. Pegasus is a tool with which almost any smartphone can be used as a listening device, whereby the user can also request all contents of the device. Its widespread use by some governments, including some oppressive regimes, was revealed last year by a collective of journalists, including Knack and Le Soir.
Since that disclosure, NSO has come under fire, it has received fewer customers and the company has even had to borrow to pay wages. At the same time, the company was blacklisted by the US, prohibiting it from purchasing equipment or services from US companies unless explicitly approved.
So the sale of Pegasus is not a huge surprise. The fact that an American party with strong ties to the American government is a candidate, therefore, seems ambiguous. The US and Israel have enjoyed good diplomatic relations for decades, but the White House told the Financial Times that such a takeover raises serious security questions.
If Pegasus is sold, L3Harris would probably also want to make sure that it does not become persona non grata in its own country. Israel also has a say in this, currently, the government has to approve new customers (in practice governments or their intelligence services) since Pegasus is seen as a weapon. Both governments make a little comment, but Israel does say that a sale can only be made to a country it trusts.
There is a hint of hypocrisy that the US is acting like this. It will be ten years next year since whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed that the US, through the NSA, had been spying on people worldwide for years through American technology companies.
It also gradually came to light that NSA employees were misusing those spy tools for personal purposes. The former NSA executive who oversaw the program was never fired or sanctioned and now sits on the board of directors of Amazon, the world’s largest cloud provider. That the US government is now buzzing about the use of Pegasus is therefore very ambiguous because it organized very similar espionage methods.