Jeff Bezos’ intimate messages, data from drug cartels, Jamal Kashoggi — the many things Pegasus is suspected of hacking instead of terrorists and criminals

Jeff Bezos’ intimate messages, data from drug cartels, Jamal Kashoggi — the many things Pegasus is suspected of hacking instead of terrorists and criminals
NSO Group and Pegasus' many exploits around the worldCPJ
  • The NSO Group is the shadowy cybersecurity firm from Israel behind the spyware software, Pegasus.
  • A new investigation led by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and Amnesty International, identified more than 1,000 people across 50 countries currently under surveillance.
  • This includes several Arab royal family members, business executives, human rights activities, journalists, politicians and government officials.
The NSO Group is in the spotlight again for its flagship software, Pegasus, being used to spy on business executives, journalists, human rights activities, politicians, diplomats and even prime ministers.

A new investigation led by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and Amnesty International, identified more than 1,000 people across 50 countries currently under surveillance taking back to 2016.

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Of the 189 journalists on the list, at least 40 were Indian including investigative journalist Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, co-founders of the The Wire — Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu — columnist Prem Shankar Jha, contibutor Swarti Chaturvedi and others.

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In 2019, the cybersecurity firm reportedly used their flagship software, Pegasus, to hack into the phones of 1,400 WhatsApp users.

This isn’t the first time that the NSO Group has made headlines. The Israeli hacker collective has been around since 2010 and human rights organisations have been trying to peek behind the veil.

Here’s everything you need to know about the security firm that was once merely a startup:

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The NSO Group has been around for nearly a decade after being founded in 2010 by Niv Carmi, Omri Lavie and Shalev Hulio after it got $1.6 million in funding.

The NSO Group has been around for nearly a decade after being founded in 2010 by Niv Carmi, Omri Lavie and Shalev Hulio after it got $1.6 million in funding.

​Founders Hulio and Lavie have ties with the Israeli government.

​Founders Hulio and Lavie have ties with the Israeli government.

(Source: Wikimedia)

According to their LinkedIn profiles, Hulio was a company commander with the Israel Defence Forces and Lavie was an employee of the government.


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​In 2015, NSO Group was owned by private equity firm called Francisco Partners Management LLC which reportedly purchased the company for $120 million in 2014.

​In 2015, NSO Group was owned by private equity firm called Francisco Partners Management LLC which reportedly purchased the company for $120 million in 2014.

Francisco was looking to sell the NSO Group in 2015 at a valuation of $1 billion. At the time, the company was earning $75 million annually.


​Currently, the NSO Group is owned by Novalpina Capital, a European private equity firm.

​Currently, the NSO Group is owned by Novalpina Capital, a European private equity firm.

(Source: Novalpina/LinkedIn)

According to Citizen Lab, an interdisciplinary laboratory under the University of Toronto, there are been an increase in spyware attacks as a part of an ongoing public relations campaign by Novalpina Capital to promote the narrative that the new ownership would curb abuse.


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​NSO Group’s official website states, “NSO creates technology that helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime to save thousands of lives around the globe.”

​NSO Group’s official website states, “NSO creates technology that helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime to save thousands of lives around the globe.”

(Source: NSO offical site)

The NSO Group also claims that its technology is used ‘exclusively’ by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies. According to the company, their technology prevented crimes like car bombs, pedophilia rings, and money laundering operations.

At the same time, a brochure uploaded by Privacy International has NSO Group boasting about itself as ‘a leader in the field of cyber warfare’.

At the same time, a brochure uploaded by Privacy International has NSO Group boasting about itself as  ‘a leader in the field of cyber warfare’.

The NSO Group describes Pegasus — the spyware that allegedly hacked WhatsApp — “a powerful and unique monitoring tool, which allows remote and stealth monitoring and full data extraction from remote targets via untraceable commands.”

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​In 2016, the first report surfaced of Pegasus using a chain of zero-day exploits to remotely break into Ahmed Mansoor’s iPhone 6.

​In 2016, the first report surfaced of Pegasus using a chain of zero-day exploits to remotely break into Ahmed Mansoor’s iPhone 6.

(Source: Amensty International)

Mansoor, an international human rights defender, reportedly received messages promising ‘new secrets’ about detainees being tortured in the UAE.


​After the hack, NSO was able to secure its first ‘official’ sale of Pegasus to Mexico. The Mexican government wanted to use the software to crack down on drug cartels.

​After the hack, NSO was able to secure its first ‘official’ sale of Pegasus to Mexico. The Mexican government wanted to use the software to crack down on drug cartels.

(Source: Wikimedia)

According to the New York Times, the company sold the Mexican government $15 million worth of hardware and software.


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The Panama government also reportedly bought Pegasus for $8 million.

The Panama government also reportedly bought Pegasus for $8 million.

(Source: Dan Lundberg/Flickr)

The Saudi Journalist, Jamal Kashoggi, was also allegedly spied on by the NSO Group before being assassinated in 2018.

The Saudi Journalist, Jamal Kashoggi, was also allegedly spied on by the NSO Group before being assassinated in 2018.

(Source: Wikimedia)

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