The attempts by the American defense contractor L3 Harris to purchase the Pegasus spying and hacking tech from a blackballed Israeli company were supported by the US government authorities. The controversial spyware company, NSO Group, was placed on the government’s no-buy list during the tenure of the Joe Biden administration due to its actions intervening in privacy.

Hacking into the phones of political leaders, human rights activists, and journalists worldwide has been implemented with the aid of Pegasus by governments worldwide.

The defense contractor L3 Harris, who has previous experience in spyware technology, cited support from intelligence officials in its proposition to purchase the Israeli spyware company, according to NY Times. 

A team of executives from L3 Harris has secretly visited Israel multiple times in recent months to purchase NSO Group, even though Washington has positioned it on a “blacklist” for the abuse of military-grade malware known as Pegasus for espionage operations, the report said.

After their discussions in June were widely disclosed, L3 Harris decided to withdraw from the negotiations with NSO Group. Since November 2021, the NSO Group has been placed on the Entity List of the Commerce Department’s Blacklist, which prevents companies in the US from engaging in commercial transactions with the Israeli company.

It was alleged that L3 Harris was taken aback when a top White House official voiced serious doubts about any potential deal shortly after the news of the talks was first made public. 

According to the report, L3 Harris was unaware of these reservations. However, about a month ago, a senior White House official mentioned that any potential arrangement might be interpreted as an attempt by a foreign power to get around the export control mechanisms that the US has in place.

However, A US official challenges the intelligence officials’ support for the story, indicating that they are “unaware of any indications of support or involvement from anyone in decision-making, policymaking or senior role.

Apple Intervention

Apple’s headquarters at Infinite Loop in Cupertino, California, USA. (Source: Joe RaviCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

At the beginning of July, Apple introduced a new “Lockdown Mode” for its iPhones, iPads, and Macs. This mode will safeguard these devices from the NSO Group’s Pegasus cyber intrusions. According to Apple, customers who face “grave, targeted threats to their digital security,” such as journalists and activists, can use Lockdown Mode as a layer of protection on their devices, in a report by The Washington Post.

When the Lockdown Mode is enabled on a device, access to certain websites, apps, and services is limited for safety reasons, while others are completely disabled. For instance, most message attachment types available in the Messages app, except photos, are disabled, and other functions, such as link previews are not accessible.

Apple revealed this information on its site last week, saying that over the past eight months, it had tracked targeted hacking operations toward consumers in roughly 150 countries. Apple has already launched a service to alert users when they are potentially the target of a cyberattack.

Inbound calls and service requests, such as FaceTime conversations, will be prohibited if the individual has not already initiated a call or request with the person making the invitation or demand. In addition, this new feature restricts users from accessing their iPhones even when connected to a computer or a connector. Lockdown Mode will be available later this fall with the release of iOS 16, the latest software update revealed by the tech giant last month, the report added.

About NSO Group

Logo of NSO Group. (Source: Bank Info Security)

Last year, human rights organizations and investigative journalists revealed how government agencies, including some in the Middle East and North Africa, were using the surveillance technology provided by the NSO Group to continuously monitor activists, dissidents, and political adversaries, among other people. 

This revelation propelled the NSO Group to the stage of international attention and steered Israel’s defense ministry to the threshold of the new regulation. Because NSO sells spyware to governments with the intention that it be used “maliciously” on targets, as a byproduct, any transaction involving a US contractor would need to be cleared by the White House.

To develop deeper security and diplomatic relations, analysts and insiders claim that Tel Aviv has treated NSO as a “de facto arm of the regime” by issuing authorizations for the sale of Pegasus spyware to various countries.

According to the New York Times Magazine, representatives from the company called multiple agencies within the US government repeatedly between 2019 and last summer to discuss a potential business transaction involving Pegasus.

During the demonstration to government officials in Washington, the firm was condemned for assisting human rights abuses in countries worldwide, showcasing a new technology named “Phantom.” The report said that Phantom could gain unauthorized access to any phone in the country.