The chief of Israeli spyware firm NSO Group said on Tuesday it had sold the country’s police a variant of the Pegasus hacking tool that can access local cellphones, but which he described as being “weaker” than the export version.
Unsourced media reports last month of warrantless wiretaps by Israeli police using Pegasus added a domestic dimension to long-running allegations that the tool was abused by foreign governments against reporters, rights activists and politicians.
The police have denied any wrongdoing. An inquiry appointed by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, which consulted NSO’s logs of client surveillance targets, found the reports to be without merit.
Shalev Hulio, co-founder and chief executive of NSO, told Tel Aviv radio station 103 FM that Israeli police had bought “not Pegasus, but a system called ‘Saifan’ – in essence, a weakened version of Pegasus … with lesser capabilities, fewer means of operating”.
He did not elaborate.
Israeli media have reported that the hacking tool used by police is designed to allow real-time eavesdropping, whereas Pegasus also provides access to past correspondence stored on cellphones. Reuters could not independently confirm this.
Hulio said NSO had shared with the government inquiry its “audit trail log” of Israelis targeted by police using the company’s spyware. That implicitly acknowledged that “Saifan” could hack Israeli cellphones — something NSO has long asserted cannot be done with Pegasus.
“Pegasus has a protective mechanism that prevents it being used against Israeli numbers,” Hulio said. “Every package ever sold to a client abroad cannot in any way be used against Israeli numbers. That’s how Pegasus is built.”
NSO says all its sales are approved by Israel’s government and are intended to prevent terrorism and crime.
“Saifan” is Hebrew for the gladiolus flower, the avocet bird or the green swordtail fish.
© Thomson Reuters 2022