ISRAEL has earned the nickname “Startup Nation” for a couple of reasons: With a population of around 8.5 million and more, it has the largest number of startups per capita in the world, around one startup per 1,400 people. This phenomenon has caught the eyes of companies and governments. One of the startups to come out of this nation is NSO Group which was founded by Shalev Hulio.
Formerly a search-and-rescue commander in Israel’s military and then an entrepreneur focused on technology that remotely accessed smartphones, Hulio has said he founded NSO Group in 2010 at the urging of European intelligence agencies. Back then, NSO marketed itself as a state-of-the-art cyberwarfare firm. He is a 39-year-old who likes to talk about his company as an entity that started life in a chicken coop on a kibbutz in central Israel.
NSO is best known for creating Pegasus, a piece of software so powerful that it can hack remotely into any phone, pierce all its encrypted apps and turn on its camera and microphone to listen in to whispered secrets from a world away.
The Pegasus software has made Hulio rich, currently, the company is valued at about $1.5bn, and he owns a tenth of it according to recent media reports.
The business he leads, NSO Group, is the world’s most notorious spyware company. It’s at the center of a booming international industry in which high-tech firms find software vulnerabilities, develop exploits, and sell malware to governments.
The Israeli-headquartered company has been linked to high-profile incidents including the murder of
Jamal Khashoggi and spying against politicians, government leaders, and journalists around the world.
It entered the global spotlight in 2016 when Ahmed Mansoor, a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates, received what’s been called the most famous text message of all time. Researchers say it was a sophisticated phishing lure sent by a government; it contained a link that, if clicked, would have taken over Mansoor’s phone with spyware.
Experts at Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto, analyzed the link and pointed to Pegasus, NSO’s flagship product. The revelation led to a great deal of scrutiny of the company, but NSO remained silent.
Recent revelations have sent shock waves for claims of spying on world leaders. One report by the Guardian indicated that the South African President may have been a victim of the software.
Wesley Diphoko is the editor in chief of BizTech.