Frisky Israeli Cyber Innovators Locked Down and Confined to Quarters

November 26, 2021

Before the NSO Group demonstrated remarkable PR powers, cyber centric companies in Israel were able to market to a large number of prospects. Conference organizers could count on NSO Group to provide speakers, purchase trade show space, and maybe sponsor a tchotchke for attendees. Governments and even some commercial enterprises knew about NSO Group’s technological capabilities and the firm’s ability to provide a network which eliminated quite a bit of the muss and fuss associated with mobile device surveillance, data analysis, and related activities.

How did that work out?

The PR sparked “real journalists” to use their powers of collecting information, analyzing those items, and making warranted conclusions about NSO Group’s enabling activities. Sure, pesky Canadian researchers were writing about NSO Group, but there wasn’t a “real news” story. Then… bingo. A certain individual associated with a “real news” organization was terminated and the arrows of data and supposition pointed to NSO Group’s capabilities and what one of the firm’s alleged customers was able to do with the system.

The journalistic horses raced out of the gate, and the NSO Group became a “thing.”

Vendors of specialized software are not accustomed to the spotlight. Making sales, collecting fees, and enjoying pats on the backs from colleagues who try hard to keep a low, low profile are more typical activities. But, oh, those spotlights.

The consequences have been ones to which cyber innovators like to avoid. Former superiors send email asking, “What are you doing?” Then government committees, consisting of people who don’t know much about next generation technologies, have to be briefed. And those explanations are painful because the nuances of cyber centric firms are different from explaining how to plug in a Tesla in Tel Aviv. Oh, painful.

Now, if the information in the Calcalist’s article “The Ministry of Defense Has Cut by Two-Thirds the Number of Countries That Cyber Companies Can Sell To” is accurate, the Israeli government has put a shock collar on NSO Group’s ankle and clamped the devices on other firm’s well-formed, powerful legs as well. The message is clear: Stay in bounds or you will be zapped. (I leave it to you to figure out what “zap” connotes.)

The publication’s story says:

The [Israeli] Ministry of Defense has cut by two-thirds the number of countries that cyber companies can sell to The previous list included 102 countries to which cyber exports are allowed, and now it includes only 37 countries. The latest list from the beginning of November does not include countries such as Morocco, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Who’s at fault? The Calcalist offers this statement:

It is implied that Israel used in a very permissive manner the special certificates that it may grant and was in any case aware of where the Israeli society is known. It is important to note that the new list includes companies to which cyber can now be exported and it is possible that in the past lists there were other countries to which systems could be exported without fear.

My knowledge of Hebrew is lousy and Google translate is not helping me much. The main idea is that up and down the chain of command, the “chain” was not managed well. Hence, the PR gaffes, the alleged terminations, and the large number of high intensity lights directed at companies which once thrived in the shadows.

Some observations:

    1. Countries unable to acquire the technology associated with NSO Group are likely to buy from non-Israeli firms. Gee, I wonder if China and Russia have specialized software vendors who will recognize a sales opportunity and not do the PR thing in which NSO Group specialized?
    2. The publicity directed at NSO Group has been a more successful college class than the dump of information from the Hacking Team. A better class may translate to more capable coders who can duplicate and possibly go beyond the Israeli firms’ capabilities. This is a new state of affairs in my opinion.
    3. Cyber technologies are the lubricant for modern warfare. Israel had a lead in this software sector. It is now highly likely that the slick system of government specialists moving into the private sector with “support” from certain entities may be changed. Bummer for some entrepreneurs? Yep.

Net net: The NSO Group’s PR excesses — combined with its marketing know how — has affected a large number of companies. Keeping secrets is known to be a wise practice for some activities. Blending secrecy with market dynamics is less wise in my experience. This NSO Group case is more impactful than the Theranos Silicon Valley matter.

Stephen E Arnold, November 25, 2021

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