Israel Promises to Investigate Group Accused of Selling Pegasus Spyware to Governments

Israel's foreign minister promised to investigate a cyberespionage group accused of selling Pegasus spyware to governments that is then used to spy on journalists, dissidents and other civilians.

The Israeli technology firm NSO Group is the creator of Pegasus, a spyware that stealthily infiltrates a target's mobile phone, giving access to data, email, contacts and even the phone's camera and microphones. Pegasus has been sold to governments for law enforcement purposes.

Yair Lapid told foreign journalists the government plans to increase efforts to make sure the spyware doesn't fall into the wrong hands, but it only has limited control over how defense exports are used by the customers.

"Once you have sold the jet, the cannon, the gun or the missile, or Pegasus, it is in the hands of the government who bought it," Lapid said. "So we're trying our best to make sure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands. But no one has an ability to fully protect the other side after it was sold."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below:

NSO Group
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said the Israeli government will step up measures to prevent cyberespionage software from falling into the wrong hands. This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel's NSO Group which features 'Pegasus' spyware, on display in Paris on July 21. Joel Saget/AFP via Getty Images

Lapid said Israel is committed to enforcing and strengthening safeguards to prevent abuse of all types of weapons.

"We are going to look at this again," Lapid said. "We're going to make sure, or try to make sure to the extent of what is doable and what is not, that nobody is misusing anything that we sell."

NSO has come under widespread criticism over reports that its flagship spyware product, Pegasus, has been misused by governments to spy on dissidents, journalists, human rights workers and possibly even heads of state.

NSO has denied wrongdoing. It said it sells Pegasus only to governments and only for the purpose of catching criminals and terrorists.

Israel's Defense Ministry regulates all arms exports, including cyber products. In late July, the ministry said it had sent a team to meet with NSO representatives after France said it was looking into suspicions that President Emmanuel Macron may have been targeted by Moroccan security agents using Pegasus spyware.

Morocco has denied the allegations, and NSO has said Macron's phone was not targeted.

Lapid, saying he was aware of the "rumors" about NSO, compared cyber exports to traditional arms sales. He said that despite the many safeguards in place, it is impossible to guarantee what a customer will do with the weapon.

But he said Israel was working to make sure that nobody is using Pegasus "against civilians or against dissidents."

Yair Lapid
Including cyber products, Israel's Defense Ministry regulates all arms exports. Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, left, talks with the EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Vice President Josep Borrell, right, prior an informal meeting between Israel and EU foreign affairs Ministers in the Europa building on July 12 in Brussels, Belgium. Thierry Monasse/Getty Images