Once Again: NSO Group Becomes a Magnet for Real Journalists

July 16, 2020

We spotted one of those “We don’t have or can’t tell you where we got this information” write ups. The article is “Source: Spain Is a Customer of NSO Group.” The main idea of the article is that a government licensed software developed for … wait for it … governments. According to the “source” with some inputs from other real news outfits like The Guardian and El Pais, the NSO Group’s specialized software was used to obtain information about … wait for it … politicians in Spain.

The write up states:

The cell phones of several politicians in Spain, including that of the president of one of the countries’ autonomous regional parliaments, were targeted with spyware made by NSO Group, an Israeli company that sells surveillance and hacking tools to governments around the world, according to The Guardian and El Pais . Motherboard confirmed the specifics with security researchers who investigated the attempted hack and a Facebook employee who has knowledge of the case.

Interesting. But a couple of questions come to mind:

  • Was the alleged use of the software a complement to an investigation; for example, inciting civil unrest?
  • Was the alleged use of the software gathering data on matter one and obtained information on a collateral or unrelated matter two?
  • Why aren’t the sources identified? Policy or some special rules of “real” journalism that elude me?

The disclaimer “We cannot confirm whether these specific attempted hacks” does nothing to alter my perception of the article; to wit: The article wants to draw attention to a particular specialized software developer and connect that company to the alleged use of the software by a licensee of the software. How’s that work? Consider the manufacturer of a knife. The purchaser of the knife uses it to kill an intruder. Is the knife manufacturer responsible? What applies to companies which are in the business of developing specialized software tools is different from the knife manufacturer.

I want to point out the Bank Info Security reported that an Israeli court dismissed a complaint against the NSO Group. Amnesty International accused the NSO group of violating human rights. On the surface, it seems that the allegations of Amnesty International were found to be without much heft.

The real question is, “Why are outfits like Vice and Amnesty International chasing NSO Group?”

DarkCyber has some hunches about the “why”? For example:

  • Companies which develop specialized services and operate in a classified or community environment populated by government customers are somehow offensive to the “real” journalists. Is this a factor? Sensibilities are activated.
  • The “real” journalists are just now realizing that those charged with enforcing the laws of countries are using specialized tools for investigations or addressing challenges which in the opinion of the government customers threaten civil order. This “sudden discovery” is like a child’s getting a new toy for her birthday. By golly, that toy is going to get some attention because it is novel to the childish mind.
  • The “real” journalists are trying to come up with “news” which is stale, routine, and institutionalized in government entities throughout the world. The focus, however, is one the producer of specialized software, not on the specific government entity licensing the software.

DarkCyber believes the truth is closer to the child’s fascination with what the child with its immature perception sees as mesmerizing.

News flash for the “real” journalists: Chasing vendors of specialized software may not be the revenue and attention magnet for which the publications hunger. Plus, there may be some unintended consequences of speculative writing about topics presented without context.

Stick with facts and identified sources. Could the NSO Group articles be converted into a Quibi program? Advance the “real” agenda with short video. Worth a shot? Sources may not be needed for a short form Quibi thing.

Stephen E Arnold, July 16, 2020


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