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NSO Group CEO says law-abiding citizens have 'nothing to be afraid of'

Credit: Andrew O'Hara, AppleInsider

The CEO of NSO Group, whose spyware tools have reportedly been used to target journalists and activists, says that people who aren't criminals shouldn't be afraid of being surveilled.

Shalev Hulio, 39, recently spoke to Forbes after investigations indicated that NSO Group's Pegasus spyware was used by authoritarian governments to hack and surveil the mobile devices of world leaders, high-profile journalists, and activists.

NSO Group says that it sells its tools to governments to help them catch serious criminals like terrorists or gangsters. However, Hulio admitted that it can't control what governments ultimately do with the tools. "We are selling our products to governments. We have no way to monitor what those governments do," he said.

Hulio did note that NSO Group has mechanisms in place to detect when abuse happens so that the company can "shut them down." He says that NSO Group has "done it before and will continue to do so. On the other hand, he said that NSO Group shouldn't be responsible for government misuse.

Additionally, Hulio said that the average smartphone has nothing to worry about. While NSO Group's spyware can break into the latest iPhones running up-to-date software, often without any action from the user, it's only aimed at criminals.

"The people that are not criminals, not the Bin Ladens of the world— there's nothing to be afraid of. They can absolutely trust on the security and privacy of their Google and Apple devices," Hulio said.

Reports that NSO Group's Pegasus spyware was being misused first surfaced earlier in July after a monthlong investigation by 17 media organizations. Some of the alleged targets of the spyware include French President Emmanuel Macron, who has opened an investigation into the case.

In some cases tracked by the investigation, Pegasus was used to covertly surveil activists and journalists critical of governments. The governments of India and Mexico, for example, in hot water for allegedly using Pegasus to surveil opposition politicians, activists, and reporters.

Hulio likened NSO Group to an automaker. If a drunk driver hits someone, it's their fault and not the car manufacturer's. Hulio also claimed that NSO's tools have been used to stop more than 15 terrorist attacks and arrest hundreds of dangerous criminals. However, since he couldn't talk specifics, he didn't offer any detail or proof.

This is not the first time that a NSO Group tool has been allegedly abused. In 2020, reports suggested that Pegasus had been used to spy on 37 journalists working for Al Jazeera.

If an attacker successfully infects a device with the Pegasus software, it would allow them to extract virtually any data they wanted from it. Governments reportedly used zero-day vulnerabilities in Apple's iMessage and Apple Music to infect devices.

Apple has condemned the attacks, stating that it continues to "work tirelessly to defend all our customers."