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Israel's NSO offered 'bags of cash' for access to US cell networks: Report

US Justice Department is conducting a probe into NSO, according to the Washington Post
NSO has faced a deluge of criticism over reports that its software has been used to target activists and journalists around the world.
NSO has faced a deluge of criticism over reports that its software has been used to target activists and journalists from around the world (AFP/File photo)

Israel's NSO Group, the company at the centre of a global hacking-for-hire scandal, offered to give representatives of a US mobile-security firm "bags of cash" in exchange for access to global cellular networks, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday, citing a whistleblower's confidential disclosures to the Justice Department.

Gary Miller, a mobile phone security expert, alleged in his disclosure to the Justice Department that NSO made the offer during a call with his then-employer, Mobileum, a company that provides security services to cell companies.

The NSO representatives were specifically seeking access to the SS7 network, which helps cellular companies route calls and services as their users roam the world.

"The NSO Group was specifically interested in the mobile networks," said Miller, a former Mobileum vice president who now works as a mobile-security researcher for Citizen Lab, a leading critic of NSO.

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"They stated explicitly that their product was designed for surveillance and it was designed to surveil not the good guys but the bad guys."

In Miller's account, which dates back to 2017, when one of Mobileum’s representatives asked how such an arrangement would work, NSO allegedly said: "We drop bags of cash at your office."

In a statement, NSO said that it had "never done any business with" Mobileum and that it "does not do business using cash as a form of payment".

Mobileum chief executive Bobby Srinivasan also issued a statement saying, "Mobileum does not have - and has never had - any business relationship with NSO Group".

The Washington Post also reported that the Justice Department is conducting a criminal investigation into NSO over allegations that its clients have illegally hacked phones, citing four people familiar with the probe. NSO said it is not "aware of any DOJ investigation".

The sources said the probe concerns allegations of unauthorised intrusions into networks and mobile devices in the US using NSO technology, such as Pegasus.

The US Justice Department declined the newspaper's request for comment.

'Doesn't smell right'

Earlier this week, an investigative report by the New York Times stated that NSO's Pegasus software was used by Israel as a core part of its diplomatic policy.

NSO has been involved in numerous scandals in recent years and has faced a deluge of international criticism over reports that its software has been used to target political dissidents, activists and journalists around the world.

The company says its Pegasus software helps fight crime, but investigators have found it on the phones of journalists and dissidents.

It is currently facing lawsuits from the messaging service WhatsApp, as well as tech giant Apple, over the use of its spyware.

'Having such access would allow the NSO to spy on vast numbers of cellphones in the United States and foreign countries'

- Congressman Ted Lieu

In November, the US Department of Commerce placed NSO on a list of foreign companies that engage in malicious cyber activities, barring American companies from working with them and stripping the Israeli company of access to key US technologies such as computers and phones.

The FBI also interviewed a US citizen in detail last year about a Pegasus hack, a source told the Post. The alleged hack happened while this person was travelling overseas and using a phone with a foreign phone number.

The NYT reported that the FBI purchased the Pegasus spyware, and NSO planned to offer the US agency new, never-before-seen spyware named Phantom. The US agency, however, ultimately decided against using the software.

Last year, Miller shared his account with Congressman Ted Lieu, who has a long-standing interest in cellular security. Lieu shared redacted copies of Miller's disclosures with the Paris-based journalism non-profit organisation Forbidden Stories, which shared them with the Pegasus Project, a global journalism consortium investigating NSO.

"Having such access," Lieu said in his referral to the Justice Department, "would allow the NSO to spy on vast numbers of cellphones in the United States and foreign countries."

The congressman told the Post that NSO's activities appear "really fishy, and it doesn’t smell right, and that’s why I want the Department of Justice to investigate".

The Justice Department also declined the newspaper's request for comment on the complaint filed by Lieu.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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