Few outsiders have access to the top-secret world of NSO Group, the Israeli spyware maker Pegasus at the center of a global phone hacking scandal. Gerard Araud, a former French ambassador, is one of them.
The recently retired diplomat took up a position as an NSO consultant in 2019, advising on human rights, shortly after resigning as French ambassador to Washington during the tumultuous years of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“I took office because I found it interesting. It was a new world for me,” Araud, who also served as French ambassador to Israel in the early 2000s, told AFP by phone.
In the NSO offices, he discovered something akin to a classic tech start-up: teams of programmers “all between 25-30 years old, in flip-flops, black T-shirts, all with doctorates in computer science …”
His one-year mission since September 2019, along with two other external consultants from the United States, was to discuss how the company could improve its human rights record after a series of negative news.
Earlier that year, the group’s technology had been publicly linked to espionage or an attempt to spy on the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabian security forces, which he denied.
The group was acquired in 2019 by London-based private equity group Novalpina, which hired Araud to recommend ways to make the company’s safeguarding procedures “more rigorous and a bit more systematic,” he said.
Since Monday, a consortium of media groups including The Washington Post, The Guardian and the French newspaper Le Monde have detailed allegations of how those alleged safeguards were ignored between 2016 and 2021.
Using what they say is a database of 50,000 numbers that were identified for a possible Pegasus hack, newspapers have detailed how human rights activists, journalists, opposition politicians and even world leaders appear on the list.
NSO Group has denied that such a list exists.
Pegasus is believed to be one of the most powerful mobile phone hacking tools available, allowing customers to secretly read every message from a target, track its location, and even operate its camera and microphone remotely.
Its export is regulated “like an arms sale,” Araud said, meaning that NSO must seek approval from the Israeli government to sell it, and state clients then sign a lengthy commercial contract that stipulates how the product will be used.
They are intended to deploy Pegasus only to combat organized crime or terrorism (the company markets itself this way), but Araud said that “you could see the full potential for misuse, although the company was not always responsible. “.
Did the company have any means of checking the actual deployment of its program, which some activists want to ban?
Araud believes not and said he believes the only advantage the company has after selling Pegasus is to stop offering software updates to customers if they are shown to be violating the terms of the contract.
“It’s a small private company, there must be a few dozen employees. I don’t think there can be any follow-up,” he said.
At a company that practices “a form of extreme secrecy,” he says that he nonetheless became convinced that the NSO Group was working with Israel’s Mossad secret services and possibly the CIA.
He said there were three Americans serving on the group’s advisory council with ties to the US intelligence agency, and the company has said its technology cannot be used to target US-based numbers.
“There is a question about the presence of the Mossad and the CIA. I thought it was both, but I have no proof,” he said. “But I suspect they are both behind this with what you call a ‘back door’.”
A “back door” is a technical term that means that security services could monitor the deployment of Pegasus and possibly the intelligence gathered as a result.
Israel has denied having access to Pegasus information.
Araud, an active Twitter user, has faced criticism online for his decision to work for a company allegedly linked to human rights abuses.
“I have nothing to hide,” he said. “I have no excuses.”
(Except for the headline, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is posted from a syndicated feed.)