CEO of spyware firm NSO Group quits after US sanctions

Company that supplied Pegasus spyware to authoritarian governments faces further investigation from US State Department

The newly-appointed CEO of Pegasus spyware-maker NSO Group has handed in his resignation only two weeks after taking the helm.

Isaac ‘Itzik’ Benbenisti, who was named CEO of the Israel-based company on 31 October, had not yet started his job when he decided against replacing co-founder and acting CEO Shalev Hulio.

A spokesperson for NSO Group told IT Pro that Hulio "will remain in his position as CEO for the near future, due to the need for stability and continuity during this period".

Benbenisti’s departure is said to have been motivated by the trade ban imposed on NSO Group by the US Commerce Department last week, according to reports from Haaretz.

The sanctions mean that NSO Group can no longer sell its products to US customers and is also barred from accessing US technologies, on grounds of national security.

Sources told the publication that Benbenisti had grown wary of the “ongoing challenges” faced by the company, including potential legal and financial repercussions, since it was outed as a spyware supplier to authoritarian governments.

In July, an investigation conducted by 17 media organisations found that NSO Group’s Pegasus tool was used to target at least 50,000 journalists, government and union officials, human rights activists, business executives, religious figures, academics, NGO employees, and lawyers.

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Although at the time the greatest repercussion of the investigation was AWS’ decision to shut down NSO Group’s infrastructure and accounts, the sanctions imposed by the US on 3 November have shown that the company is yet to face the full consequences of trading with authoritarian regimes.

This could also include an investigation by the US State Department, which last week was proposed by four members of Congress.

“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," the joint statement on the proposed investigation read.

"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."

This is the second resignation this year for Benbenisti, who in April stepped down as CEO of mobile network operator Partner Communications after six years in the role.

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