CEO-designate of Pegasus spyware's NSO Group resigns after US sanctions

Just two weeks after accepting the role at NSO Group, new CEO Itzik Benbenisti announced his resignation.
Written by Jonathan Greig, Contributor

Multiple Israeli news outlets are reporting that Itzik Benbenisti, the person slated to become the new CEO of controversial spyware company NSO Group, has resigned just two weeks after accepting the role. 

The Jerusalem Post and Haaretz reported that Benbenisti decided against replacing current CEO Shalev Hulio after the US Commerce Department's Bureau of Industry and Security added NSO Group to the Entity List "for engaging in activities that are contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States" last week. 

NSO Group did not respond to requests for comment, but it did confirm Benbenisti's decision to Haaretz. His appointment to CEO had been announced on October 31, but he had not started the job yet. 

Sources told Haaretz that Benbenisti was spooked by the new sanctions as well as recent revelations about the company's spyware that could lead to legal consequences.

The US Commerce Department said NSO Group and another spyware firm called Candiru were added to the list because officials had found "evidence that these entities developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics, and embassy workers." 

The Commerce Department noted that the governments given these tools repressed a number of people in other countries, explaining that some authoritarian governments targeted "dissidents, journalists, and activists outside of their sovereign borders to silence dissent."

NSO Group continues to face a barrage of bad headlines over how its Pegasus spyware has been used around the world. Last week, a bombshell report from the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab and the Associated Press said that even the Israeli government's own spy agency used the tool to hack the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists. 

That report followed another about the ruler of the UAE using Pegasus to spy on his ex-wife and her British lawyers. 

In July, the "Pegasus Project" used information from Amnesty International, the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, and Forbidden Stories to uncover that the NSO Group's spyware was used to target at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists, and at least 600 politicians. 

Targeted government officials included French President Emmanuel Macron, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, and Iraqi President Barham Salih. Cabinet ministers from dozens of countries, including Egypt and Pakistan, were also targeted. 

Last week, on the heels of the sanctions announcement, several US Congress members demanded the State Department further investigate how Pegasus and other spyware is being used to abuse human rights around the world.

"As members of Congress deeply concerned with the rising tides of authoritarianism around the world, we have closely tracked the parallel and reinforcing proliferation of commercially distributed surveillance and cyber-intrusion tools. These are extremely sensitive and powerful technologies used by foreign governments against Americans, as well as against journalists and civic activists," Congress members said in a joint statement. 

"While recent reporting confirmed that NSO Group's Pegasus software was used against journalists, human rights activists, and opposition politicians, many others are profiting from this new arms market."

Hulio is planning to stay on as CEO to guide the company through this turbulent period, according to Haaretz. 

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