Israel says no to Ukraine’s request for Pegasus spyware

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Israel has rejected Ukraine’s request to access the infamous Pegasus spyware out of fear that doing so would anger Russia, which is currently invading Ukraine. According to The Washington Post, Ukraine is looking to strengthen its surveillance capabilities amid the war, but Israel has served a blow. Ukraine asked for NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, but Israel blocked the possible license that could have allowed the deal.

Pegasus spyware is one of the most sophisticated tools created by NSO Group. The Israeli firm has forged deals with several nations under which their governments can access Pegasus to snoop on anyone they want. Previous investigations have shown various governments used Pegasus to turn the mobile devices of senior government and diplomatic officials into remote listening and recording devices. Ukraine, which is currently fighting a war with Russia, needs such a surveillance tool more than ever now. Pegasus could have given Ukraine access to devices of prominent people – something Russia does not want.

According to a joint investigation by The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian, Israel’s Defense Exports Controls Agency rejected a possible license that would have given Ukraine access to Pegasus spyware in a deal with NSO Group. People with direct knowledge of the matter told the publications that Ukraine had lobbied Israeli officials as far back as 2019 to convince them to license Pegasus, but NSO Group could never go ahead because of the Israeli government’s intervention.

Israel’s previous decisions on spyware deals were also based on whether or not they would irk Russia. NSO Group could not continue its Pegasus deal with Estonia, which achieved independence from Soviet rule back in 1991, has been critical of Russia, and is also a member of NATO. Israel influenced NSO’s deal, after which the Pegasus maker imposed restrictions on the spyware’s use. Given the current situation between Ukraine and Russia, Israel’s stance seems clear.

NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware is said to be capable enough to turn any smartphone into a spying device, giving the hacking party access to confidential data. But Israel has asked NSO Group to restrict the use of Pegasus by foreign governments against select countries, such as the US and the UK. Israel’s efforts to limit Pegasus’ use, however, never included Russia before, according to both publications. The turndown of Ukraine’s request by the Israeli government does not imply the same either.