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Authoritarian Tech

“Don’t believe newspapers” — controversial surveillance firm CEO defends himself on TV

In an evident effort to rehabilitate its image, Israeli surveillance tech firm NSO gave a tour of its offices to CBS’s 60 Minutes.

“Don’t believe newspapers,” NSO’s CEO, Shalev Hulio, told the program. He was referring to articles, like a December 2018 report by the New York Times, that NSO’s Pegasus hacking software may have played a role in Saudi Arabia’s assassination of Jamal Khashoggi.

He said the company takes steps to make sure its clients only use NSO technology to fight terrorism and create a “safer world.”

The 60 Minutes segment also included the first ever footage from inside NSO’s office, showing employees doing pilates and playing the video game FIFA. Every employee’s face was obscured for security reasons.

Toronto-based Citizen Lab has identified possible Pegasus surveillance in 45 countries. The software has been linked to abusive government spying in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico.

NSO, contradicting reports by journalists and civil society groups, claimed it had only ever had three cases of misuse, and that it had terminated its relationship with those clients. Hulio denied that NSO had played any role in Khashoggi’s killing and refused to say that the company had stopped selling its software to the Saudis.

As a recent Times investigation and an earlier Haaretz investigation have shown, Israel is one of the epicenters of a growing private surveillance industry, leveraging its highly-trained defense talent to sell powerful tools to authoritarian regimes in the region and beyond.

Motherboard noted that, as part of its publicity push, NSO has also put up new ads on Google and has redesigned it website.

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