NSO says Israeli police have been given a ‘weaker’ variant of the Pegasus phone hacking tool

The logo of Israeli cyber company NSO Group can be seen at one of its branches in the Arava desert of southern Israel
FILE PHOTO: The logo of Israeli cyber company NSO Group is seen at one of its offices in southern Israel’s Arava desert on July 22, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

March 29, 2022

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The head of Israeli spyware firm NSO Group said on Tuesday it had sold the country’s police a variant of the Pegasus hacking tool that could access local cellphones, but which he described as “weaker” than the designated export version.

Unsourced media reports last month of Israeli police eavesdropping using Pegasus added a domestic dimension to long-standing claims that the tool was abused by foreign governments against reporters, rights activists and politicians.

Police have denied any wrongdoing. An investigation commissioned by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, which consulted NSO’s logs of clients’ surveillance targets, found the reports to be unfounded.

Shalev Hulio, co-founder and executive director of NSO, told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM that the Israeli police “didn’t buy Pegasus, they bought a system called ‘Saifan’ – essentially a weakened version of Pegasus… with lower capabilities, fewer resources “.

He didn’t elaborate.

Israeli media have reported that the hacking tool used by the police is said to allow real-time wiretapping, while Pegasus also offers access to past correspondence stored on mobile phones. Reuters could not independently confirm this.

Hulio said NSO shared with the government investigation its “audit trail log” of Israelis attacked by police using the company’s spyware. This implicitly acknowledged that “Saifan” could hack Israeli cellphones – something NSO has long claimed Pegasus cannot do.

“Pegasus has a protection mechanism that prevents it from being used against Israeli numbers,” Hulio said. “Any package that has ever been sold to a customer abroad can in no way be used against Israeli numbers. That’s how Pegasus is built.”

NSO says all of its sales are approved by the Israeli government and are used to prevent terrorism and crime.

“Saifan” is Hebrew for gladiolus flower, avocet or green swordtail fish.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jason Neely) NSO says Israeli police have been given a ‘weaker’ variant of the Pegasus phone hacking tool

Bobby Allyn

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