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Controversial Israeli cyberattack firm NSO adds Lieberman crony to its arsenal

Sharon Shalom, former chief of staff at the Defense Ministry under former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, has joined the Israeli cyber-surveillance and spyware company NSO Group Technologies. He is to serve as an outside consultant in the realm of global policy.

NSO has recently been in the headlines due to charges that its spyware has been used to commit abuses against human rights activists and journalists worldwide

After three years, Sharon stepped down from his post at the ministry, in August, after having remained there for eight months after his boss resigned, despite the animosity between Lieberman and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sharon also previously served as chief of staff at the Foreign Ministry – also under Lieberman.

As a confidant of the chairman of Yisrael Beiteinu, Shalom was involved in the so-called straw companies case around a decade ago. The police claimed at the time that millions of shekels were laundered through a company managed by Sharon called M.L.1, and that those funds were subsequently channeled to the firm’s owner, Lieberman’s daughter Michal Lieberman. However, no charges were filed in the wake of the investigation.

NSO, which specializes in mobile applications, is among the world’s largest and most active cyberattack companies. In February 2019 the company’s founders, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavi, together with the European private equity fund Novalpina, bought the company back according to a market value of $1 billion.

Among other technologies the company is known for developing Pegasus spyware, which targets and accesses information in cellphones.

NSO Group Technologies' offices in Herzliya, in 2016.
Daniella Cheslow/AP

Earlier this month it was reported that Brig. Gen. Ariella Ben-Avraham, Israel’s chief military censor, was in advanced negotiations to join NSO, and has asked to resign her post.

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Because of the nature of its work, NSO must get Defense Ministry approval in order to export its products. In leaving a job at the ministry and taking up a post at this company, Shalom is crossing the line, as it were, from the supervisor to the supervised, following a long tradition in Israeli government and industry.

Specifically, the company has been criticized recently by rights groups and the media over the sale of its powerful technology to dictatorships and its use against innocent civilians and opposition figures around the world.

NSO is thus currently waging legal wars on several fronts, from California to Cyprus to Israel. Amnesty International has asked the Tel Aviv District Court to suspend the firm’s export license after phones belonging to its own activists were hacked. The court recently said it would hear the case in camera, granting a Defense Ministry request for secrecy.

In December 2018, the Montreal-based Saudi Arabian dissident Omar Abdulaziz filed a lawsuit in Israel against NSO, claiming its technology had helped the Saudi government listen in on his conversations with the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a friend of Abdulaziz. And in October, Facebook sued NSO in San Francisco for allegedly hacking into WhatsApp, the popular messaging platform owned by the U.S. social-media giant. Facebook suspended the Facebook accounts of NSO employees, whereupon they countersued the California-based company.