NSO: More PR Excitement, Facts, or Bloomberg Style Reporting?

July 20, 2019

I read the Financial Times’ write up about NSO Group. The title is a show stopper: “Israeli Group’s Spyware Offers Keys to Big Tech’s Cloud.” (Note: You may have to pay money to view the orange newspaper’s online “real” news write up.

There’s a diagram:


There’s a reminder that NSO is owned by an outfit called “Q Cyber.” There’s information contained in a “pitch document.” There’s a quote from Citizen Lab, a watchdog outfit on cyber intelligence firms and other interesting topics.

What’s missing?

  1. Information from a Q Cyber or NSO professional. A quote or two would be good.
  2. Statements from an entity which has used the method and obtained the desired results; for example, high value intel, a person of interest neutralized, the interruption of an industrialized crime operation, or something similar
  3. Scanned images of documents similar to the Palantir Gotham how to recently exposed by Vice, a zippy new news outfit.

Think about the PR problem the revelations create: NSO gets another whack on the nose.

Think about the upside: Visibility and in the Financial Times no less. (Does NSO need more visibility and semantic connections to Amazon, Apple, or any other “in the barrel” high tech outfit?)

Outfits engaged in cyber intelligence follow some unwritten rules of the road:

First, these outfits are not chatty people. Even at a classified conference where almost everyone knows everyone else, there’s not much in the way of sales tactics associated with used car dealers.

Second, documentation, particularly PowerPoints or PDFs of presentations, are not handed out like chocolate drops for booth attendees who looked semi alert during a run through of a feature or service. Why not whip out a mobile device with a camera and snap some of the slides from the presentation materials or marketing collateral? The graphic is redrawn and quite unlike the diagrams used by NSO type cyber intel outfits. Most trained intelligence professionals are not into “nifty graphics.”

Third, cyber intel companies are not into the media. There are conference organizers who snap at people who once worked as a journalist and made the mistake of telling someone that “before I joined company X, I worked at the ABC newspaper.” Hot stuff New York Times’ stringers are stopped by security guards or police before getting near the actual conference venue. Don’t believe me. Well, try to gate crash the upcoming geo spatial conference in Washington, DC, and let me know how this works out for you.

Fourth, why is NSO acting in a manner so different from the other Israel-influenced cyber intelligence firms? Is Voyager Labs leaking details of its analytic and workflow technology? What about Sixgill’s system for Dark Web content analysis? What’s Webhose.io doing with its content and expanding software suite? What’s Verint, a public company, rolling out next quarter? NSO is behaving differently, and that is an item of interest, worthy of some research, investigation, and analysis.

For the established cyber intel firms like NSO, assertions are not exactly what sells licenses or make BAE Systems, IBM, or Raytheon fear that their licensees will terminate their contracts. How many “customers” for NSO type systems are there? (If you said a couple of hundred, you are getting close to the bull’s eye.) Does publicity sell law enforcement, security, and intelligence systems? Search engine optimization specialists are loco if they think cyber intel firms want to be on the first page of a Google results page.

Consider this series of bound phrases:

Cat’s paw. Bloomberg methods. Buzzfeed and Vice envy. A desire to sell papers. Loss of experienced editors. Journalists who confuse marketing with functioning software?

These are the ideas the DarkCyber team suggested as topics an investigator could explore. Will anyone do this? Unlikely. Too arcane. Too different from what problems multiple systems operating on a global scale present for one method to work. Five Eyes’ partners struggle with WhatsApp and Telegram messages. “Everything” in Amazon or Apple? Really?

Net net: Great assertion. How about something more?

Stephen E Arnold, July 20, 2019


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