NSO Group: The Rip in the Fabric of Intelware

July 22, 2021

A contentious relationship with the “real news” organizations can be risky. I have worked at a major newspaper and a major publisher. The tenacity of some of my former colleagues is comparable to the grit one associates with an Army Ranger or Navy Seal, just with a slightly more sensitive wrapper. Journalists favored semi with it clothes, not bushy beards. The editorial team was more comfortable with laptops than an F SCAR.

Communications associated with NSO Group — the headline magnet among the dozens of Israel-based specialized software companies (an very close in group by the way)— may have torn the fabric shrouding the relationship among former colleagues in the military, government agencies, their customers, and their targets.

Whose to blame? The media? Maybe. I don’t have a dog in this particular season’s of fights. The action promises to be interesting and potentially devastating to some comfortable business models. NSO Group is just one of many firms working to capture the money associated with cyber intelligence and cyber security. The spat between the likes of journalists at the Guardian and the Washington Post and NSO Group appears to be diffusing like spilled ink on a camouflage jacket.

I noted “Pegasus Spyware Seller: Blame Our Customers Not Us for Hacking.” The main point seems to be that NSO Group allegedly suggests that those entities licensing the NSO Group specialized software are responsible for their use of the software. The write up reports:

But a company spokesman told BBC News: “Firstly, we don’t have servers in Cyprus.

“And secondly, we don’t have any data of our customers in our possession.

“And more than that, the customers are not related to each other, as each customer is separate.

“So there should not be a list like this at all anywhere.”

And the number of potential targets did not reflect the way Pegasus worked.

“It’s an insane number,” the spokesman said.

“Our customers have an average of 100 targets a year.

“Since the beginning of the company, we didn’t have 50,000 targets total.”

For me, the question becomes, “What controls exist within the Pegasus system to manage the usage of the surveillance system?” If there are controls, why are these not monitored by an appropriate entity; for example, an oversight agency within Israel? If there are no controls, has Pegasus become an “on premises” install set up so that a licensee has a locked down, air tight version of the NSO Group tools?

The second item I noticed was “NSO Says ‘Enough Is Enough,’ Will No Longer Talk to the Press About Damning Reports.” At first glance, I assumed that an inquiry was made by the online news service and the call was not returned. That happens to me several times a day. I am an advocate of my version of cancel culture. I just never call the entity again and move on. I am too old to fiddle with the egos of a younger person who believes that a divine entity has given that individual special privileges. Nope, delete.

But not NSO Group. According to the write up:

“Enough is enough!” a company spokesperson wrote in a statement emailed to news organizations. “In light of the recent planned and well-orchestrated media campaign lead by Forbidden Stories and pushed by special interest groups, and due to the complete disregard of the facts, NSO is announcing it will no longer be responding to media inquiries on this matter and it will not play along with the vicious and slanderous campaign.” NSO has not responded to Motherboard’s repeated requests for comment and for an interview.

Okay, the enough is enough message is allegedly in “writing.” That’s better than a fake message disseminated via TikTok. However, the “real journalists” are likely to become more persistent. Despite a lack of familiarity with the specialized software sector, a large number of history majors and liberal arts grads can do what “real” intelligence analysts do. Believe me, there’s quite a bit of open source information about the cozy relationship within and among Israel’s specialized software sector, the interaction of these firms with certain government entities, and public messages parked in unlikely open source Web sites to keep the “real” journalists learning, writing, and probing.

In my opinion, allowing specialized software services to become public; that is, actually talk about the capabilities of surveillance and intercept systems was a very, very bad idea. But money is money and sales are sales. Incentive schemes for the owners of specialized software companies guarantee than I can spend eight hours a day watching free webinars that explain the ins and outs of specialized software systems. I won’t but some of the now ignited flames of “real” journalism will. They will learn almost exactly what is presented in classified settings. Why? Capabilities when explained in public and secret forums use almost the same slide decks, the same words, and the same case examples which vary in level of detail presented. This is how marketing works in my opinion.

Observations:

1. A PR disaster is, it appears, becoming a significant political issue. This may pose some interesting challenges within the Israel centric specialized software sector. NSO Group’s system ran on cloud services like Amazon’s until AWS allegedly pushed Pegasus out of the Bezos stable.

2. A breaker of the specialized software business model of selling to governments and companies. The cost of developing, enhancing, and operating most specialized software systems keeps companies on the knife edge of solvency. The push into commercial use of the tools by companies or consumerizing the reports means government contracts will become more important if the non-governmental work is cut off. Does the world need several dozen Dark Web indexing outfits and smart time line and entity tools? Nope.

3. A boost to bad actors. The reporting in the last week or so has provided a detailed road map to bad actors in some countries about [a] What can be done, [b] How systems like Pegasus operate, [c] the inherent lack of security in systems and devices charmingly labeled “insecure by design” by a certain big software company, and [d] specific pointers to the existence of zero day opportunities in blast door protected devices. That’s a hoot at ??????? ???? “Console”.

Net net: The NSO Group “matter” is a very significant milestone in the journey of specialized software companies. The reports from the front lines will be fascinating. I anticipate excitement in Belgium, France, Germany, Israel, the United Kingdom, and a number of other countries. Maybe a specialized software Covid Delta?

Stephen E Arnold, July 22, 2021

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