JERUSALEM — Hacking software sold by the NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance firm, has been used to spy on journalists, opposition groups and rights activists. There have been so many accusations of abuse that the Biden administration slapped sanctions on the company last week.
But the company’s biggest backer, the government of Israel, considers the software a crucial element of its foreign policy and is lobbying Washington to remove the company from the blacklist, two senior Israeli officials said Monday.
NSO insists that the software — which allows governments to remotely and secretly penetrate a phone, monitor its location and extract it contents — is intended to help countries combat organized crime and terrorism.
But there has been a drumbeat of periodic revelations of abuse, with the company’s Pegasus software used to hack the phones of political opponents in dozens of countries.
The latest accusation came Monday, when international computer privacy experts said that Pegasus had been deployed against Palestinian rights activists, raising questions about whether the Israeli government itself was behind the hacking.
If the new claims are true, the case would be yet another instance of the software being used against rights advocates and the first known instance of it being used inside Israel and the occupied territories.
The Israeli prime minister’s office and the Defense Ministry denied that Pegasus had been used to hack the Palestinians’ phones. An NSO spokeswoman said that the company would not say who used the software and that it did not have access to information about whom the program was used against.
But the fact that such reports have led to a breach in relations with the United States alarmed the Israeli government, the senior officials said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss issues of national security and diplomatic relations.
In imposing the sanctions, the U.S. Commerce Department said that NSO had acted “contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.” If the United States is accusing NSO of acting against its interests, the officials said, then it is implicitly accusing Israel, which licenses the software, of doing the same.
Israel insists that it maintains strict control over the licensing, with a review process by the Defense Ministry that was established in part to assure that no commercial deals would jeopardize Israel’s relationship with the United States.
The campaign to remove the sanctions against NSO and a second company, Candiru, will seek to persuade the Biden administration that their activities remain of great importance to the national security of both countries, the officials said.
They also said that Israel would be willing to commit to much tighter supervision on licensing the software.
Aside from Israel’s Defense Ministry review process, the global market for spyware is largely unregulated. Those targeted by the Pegasus spyware in the past include people close to Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and columnist murdered by Saudi agents in 2018; investigative journalists in Hungary; and lawyers in Mexico.
The investigation finding that the software was used against Palestinian rights activists, first reported by The Associated Press, did not definitively identify which government used Pegasus in this case.
“But it raises a lot of questions as to the role not only of NSO, but also of Israel,” said Adam Shapiro, a spokesman for Front Line Defenders, a Dublin-based rights group that conducted the investigation along with Amnesty International and Citizen Lab, a cyber-watchdog affiliated with the University of Toronto.
“There are only so many options that could be plausible here,” Mr. Shapiro said, “and the previous actions of the Israeli government raise real questions about what’s going on here and serious doubts about any denials that the government makes.”
The latest accusations mark the convergence of what had previously been two separate diplomatic issues for Israel: its outlawing last month of six Palestinian rights groups it accused of being fronts for a banned militant group, which attracted widespread international criticism, and its longstanding support for NSO, which operates under state-issued licenses.
The analysis said that four of the six Palestinians whose phones were hacked were employees of the outlawed groups.
According to Israeli government policy, Pegasus cannot be used by a foreign government against Israeli phone numbers, such as those belonging to the Palestinians in the outlawed groups. An Israeli government agency, however, would have the authority to use the software against an Israeli number.
This policy, coupled with the accusations in the new analysis, raised questions about whether the Israeli government had used the spyware against the Palestinian rights advocates.
Last month, the Israeli government claimed that the six Palestinian groups raised funds for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and other countries.
The groups, which have been under Israeli investigation since early this year, collectively denied the Israeli allegations.
Citing secret evidence that it has not released publicly, the Israeli Defense Ministry said that the groups had taken donations from European countries and institutions that were meant to be used for humanitarian and rights-related activity, and instead funneled that money to the Popular Front. Officials said that the designation of the six organizations was based on extensive additional intelligence, including classified information that was presented to several intelligence services and law enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, declined to answer questions regarding the content of this additional and classified information, or whether it was obtained with NSO spyware.
“Solid and unequivocal information was presented, linking the activities of the relevant organizations to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” a Shin Bet spokesman said.
A Shin Bet document from May summarizing part of that investigation, obtained and verified by The New York Times, provided no conclusive evidence of a conspiracy between the groups and the Popular Front. However, an Israeli official said that this summary did not detail the main evidence against the six groups.
The Popular Front rose to prominence in the 1960s, when its members hijacked several passenger aircraft, and it went on to claim responsibility for attacks during a Palestinian uprising in the 2000s, including the assassination of Rehavam Zeevi, an Israeli cabinet minister.
Israel said that the Popular Front’s members controlled the finances of the six outlawed groups.
The six groups — Addameer; Al Haq; Bisan; Defense For Children International-Palestine; the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees; and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees — say they are being targeted to silence their work reporting infringements on human rights.
The six groups are variously involved in documenting abuses by Israel; by the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank; and by Hamas, which rules Gaza. They also represent Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and promote the rights of children, women and farmers.
Some of the groups provided evidence to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court who are investigating Israeli politicians and military officials, including the current defense minister, Benny Gantz, for possible war crimes. They have often shared material and testimony with leading international rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and have frequently been cited in the international media.
The document summarizing parts of the Shin Bet’s investigation was originally provided by the intelligence agency to the groups’ European donors and to American officials in an attempt to persuade the latter of their investigation’s legitimacy. A version of it was first leaked last week to two Israeli news outlets, +972 and Local Call, and an American partner, The Intercept.
But instead of detailing specific evidence against the six groups, the document focuses on allegations against a seventh organization, the Health Work Committee. It mainly contains allegations, obtained under Israeli interrogation, by two former accountants of the Health Work Committee who were fired from their posts in 2019.
The two accountants claimed that the other outlawed organizations were controlled by Popular Front members, but at times conceded that some of those allegations were based on conjecture.
The Irish and Dutch governments have said that Israel has not yet provided credible evidence of the links between the six groups and terrorism.
But an Israeli official said that the purpose of the leaked dossier was to persuade Europeans and Americans of the guilt of the Health Work Committee, not the six other groups, and that more conclusive and secretive evidence about the six organizations had been provided to American officials in recent weeks.
“We reject the claim that the material presented to various American entities is circumstantial and unsatisfactory,” a Shin Bet spokeswoman said.
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel; and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.