A team of executives from an American military contractor quietly visited Israel numerous times in recent months to try purchase NSO Group, developer of one the world’s most sophisticated and controversial hacking tools, The New York Times reported on Sunday.
The impediments were substantial for the team from the American company, L3Harris, which also had experience with spyware technology. They started with the uncomfortable fact that the United States government had put NSO on a blacklist just months earlier because the Israeli firm’s spyware, called Pegasus, had been used by other governments to penetrate the phones of political leaders, human rights activists and journalists.
However, five people familiar with the negotiations said that the L3Harris team had brought with them a surprising message that made a deal seem possible despite the blacklist.
American intelligence officials, the sources told The New York Times, quietly supported its plans to purchase NSO, whose technology over the years has been of intense interest to many intelligence and law enforcement agencies around the world, including the FBI and the CIA.
The talks continued in secret until last month, when word of NSO’s possible sale leaked and sent all the parties scrambling, according to the report. White House officials said they were outraged to learn about the negotiations, and that any attempt by American defense firms to purchase a blacklisted company would be met by serious resistance.
Days later, L3Harris, which is heavily reliant on government contracts, notified the Biden administration that it had scuttled its plans to purchase NSO, according to three United States government officials, although several people familiar with the talks said there have been attempts to resuscitate the negotiations.
NSO’s Pegasus software has been linked to abuses by governments.
In February, the Finnish foreign ministry said it had detected Pegasus in several phones used by its diplomats abroad.
The Finnish announcement followed a report in The New York Times which said that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu worked to ensure that Saudi Arabia would be able to use the Pegasus software, around the time that the Abraham Accords were signed with the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
More recently, Canada's Citizen Lab group said that at least 65 people linked to the Catalan separatist movement had been targets of the Pegasus spyware after a failed independence bid in 2017.
The US Commerce Department recently blacklisted NSO Group, prohibiting it from using American technology in its operations.
Apple sued the Israeli firm in late November, seeking a permanent injunction to ban NSO Group from using Apple software, services, or devices.