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Fearing Russian response, Israel reportedly refused Ukraine requests for NSO spyware

For the past several years, Ukraine has unsuccessfully lobbied Israel to license the controversial Pegasus spyware for use against Russia, The Guardian reported Wednesday.

Israel has rejected the requests, which have been made since at least 2019, due to fears of angering Russia, the British newspaper reported, citing people with direct knowledge of the matter.

The Pegasus technology in question belongs to the NSO Group, which was recently blacklisted by the Biden administration after successive media reports exposed that its technology was being used by authoritarian regimes to target dissidents, journalists, human rights activists and even several US state department officials.

Pegasus is a powerful tool that allows its operator to infiltrate a target’s phone and sweep up its contents, including messages, contacts and location history.

A senior Ukrainian intelligence official told The Guardian that Israel’s decision left Kyiv “confused,” adding that the US government supported the Ukrainian request.

The New York Times, which also reported on the issue, cited another senior Ukrainian official who said his government was disappointed in Israel, arguing that the technology could have been used to monitor Russia’s military progress in the months leading up to the invasion and provide Kyiv with a better understanding of what was coming.

Sources familiar with the matter told The Guardian Israel feared licensing NSO Group to sell Pegasus to Ukraine would be viewed as an act of aggression against Russian intelligence services.

These same concerns are what led NSO to walk back on an agreement to sell Pegasus to Estonia, another Russian neighbor wary of the Kremlin.

NSO had struck a deal with Tallinn granting access to the spyware in 2019 only to rescind several months later, The Guardian reported.

The New York Times said the Estonian government had even made a $30 million down payment in order to gain access to the spyware.

The most recently reported request for the spyware came in August, according to The Times, which said Israel rejected it as Russian troops were massing on Ukraine’s border.

Responding to the report, NSO Group told The Guardian it “continues to be subjected to inaccurate media reports regarding alleged clients, which are based on hearsay, political innuendo and untruths.”

“The state of Israel regulates marketing and export of cyber products in accordance with the 2007 Defense Export Control Act,” the firm added.

Israel’s Defense Ministry told The Times, “policy decisions regarding export controls take into account security and strategic considerations, which include adherence to international arrangements. As a matter of policy, the state of Israel approves the export of cyber products exclusively to governmental entities, for lawful use, and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and counter-terrorism, under end-use/end-user declarations provided by the acquiring government.”

Israel has been walking a tight line since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, offering some support to Kyiv without angering Russia, which maintains a substantial military presence in Syria, across Israel’s northern border. Israel has also been trying to mediate between the two sides.

Ukraine’s vice prime minister Mykhailo Fedorov told The Guardian: “The government of Israel is at this time not participating in any discussion or facilitation regarding offensive tech, but we have ongoing conversations with a lot of the Israeli companies in the market and they’re at various stages. But again, let me say this: we have enough capability to continue winning and we’re adding new tools, including emerging tools, every day.”

Source: TOI