Surprise: NSO Group Pegasus Is in the News Again

July 28, 2022

On July 27, 2022, the winger wonder Pegasus cast a shadow over the desks of the House Intelligence Committee. The flapping of the mythical creatures wings could not be stilled. Gavel pounding, heavy breathing from lobbyists in the gallery, and convoluted statements by elected leaders did not cause the beastie to fly away. Nope. Pegasus with its NSO Group logo branded on its comely haunch was present. Even mythical creatures can leave behind a mess.

And it appears as if the mess is semi-permanent and odiferous.

We’re Likely Only Seeing the Tip of the Iceberg of Pegasus Spyware Use Against the US” states:

US lawmakers heard testimony from Citizen Lab senior researcher John Scott-Railton; Shane Huntley, who leads Google’s Threat Analysis Group; and Carine Kanimba, whose father was the inspiration for Hotel Rwanda and who was, herself, targeted by Pegasus spyware. This, of course, is the now-infamous malware that its developer, Israel’s NSO Group, claims is only sold to legitimate government agencies — not private companies or individuals. Once installed on a victim’s device, Pegasus can, among other things, secretly snoop on that person’s calls, messages, and other activities, and access their phone’s camera without permission.

I like the Hotel Rawanda reference. Younger elected officials may not know much about intelware, but they definitely know about the motion picture in my opinion. Hutus Tutsis and a big box office. A target of Pegasus. Credibility? Yep.

The hearings continue of July 28, 2022. According to the article:

Schiff called NSO’s software and similar eavesdropping tools “a threat to Americans,” and pointed to news reports from last year about cellphones belonging to US diplomats in Uganda being compromised by Pegasus. It is my belief that we are very likely looking at the tip of the iceberg, and that other US government personnel have had their devices compromised, whether by a nation-state using NSO’s services or tools offered by one of its lesser known but equally potent competitors,” Schiff said.

Google — the go to source for objective information — is allegedly tracking 30 firms “that sell exploits or surveillance capabilities to government-backed groups.

Just 30? Interesting, but, hey, Google knows surveillance cold I suppose.

A handful of observations:

  1. NSO Group’s Pegasus continues to capture attention like a Kentucky Derby winner which allegedly has banned substances rubbed on its belly. Some of those rub ons have a powerful scent. Even a boozy race track veterinarian can wince when checking a specific thoroughbred’s nether region.
  2. The knock on effect of NSO Group’s alleged management oversight means that scrutiny of intelware companies is going to spotlight the founders, funders, and stakeholders. I think this is like a deer standing on railroad tracks mesmerized by the bright white light heading down the rails at 60 miles per hour. In the train versus deer competitions in the past, trains hold a decided advantage.
  3. Individual companies in the specialized software business face an uncertain future.

How uncertain?

Regulations and bans seem to be on the menus in a number of countries. Also, there are a finite number of big dollar contracts for specialized software and smaller firms are going to have to get big fast, sell out to a larger company with multiple lines of law enforcement, defense, and intelligence revenue, or find a way to market without marketing “too well.”

And the “too well”?

Since NSO Group’s spotlight appearances, smaller intelware companies have had to be very careful abut their sales and marketing activities. Why? There are reporters from big time newspapers nosing around for information. There are online podcasts which have guests who talk about what specialized software can do, where the data originate, and how a “food chain” of information providers provide high value information. There are the tireless contributors of Twitter’s #OSINT threads who offer sometimes dumb and less frequently high-value nuggets about specialized services vendors. Finally, there are the marketers at specialized services firms themselves who use email blasts to tout their latest breakthroughs. Other small specialized software vendors prowl the niche law enforcement and intelligence conferences in search of sales leads. In some cases, there are more marketers than there are individuals who can license a data set, an analytics package, or the whole enchilada needed to monitor — how shall I phrase it — comprehensively. These energetic marketers learn that their employer becomes a journalist’s subject of interest.

Net net: When I reflect on the golden years of specialized software and services marketing, testing, and deploying, I have one hypotheses: NSO Group’s visibility has changed the game. There will be losers and a very few big winners. Who could have foreseen specialized software and services working like a bet on the baccarat tables in Monaco? Who anticipated NSO Group-type technology becoming “personal” to the US? I sure did not. The light at the end of the tunnel, once the train clears the deer, is that the discipline of “marketing without marketing too much” may become mainstream in France, Germany, Israel, Switzerland, and the US. I hear that train a-comin’ do you?

Stephen E Arnold, July 28, 2022


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