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Incoming CEO of Israeli NSO Group resigns amid Pegasus scandals

Isaac Benbenisti announced he was stepping aside "in light of the special circumstances" involving the Israeli spyware firm.
Amir Levy/Getty Images

The incoming chief executive officer of NSO Group has quit a week after the Biden administration added the controversial Israeli spyware firm to its economic blacklist

In a resignation letter to NSO's chairman Asher Levy quoted by Reuters, Isaac Benbenisti wrote that "in light of the special circumstances that have arisen," he "would not be able to assume the position of CEO." The news agency reports he is leaving the company altogether. 

Benbenisti, an NSO co-president who previously served as CEO at telecoms group Partner Communications, was expected to assume his position as CEO in the coming weeks. He would have succeeded founder and current CEO Shalev Hulio, who was named to the role of vice chairman of the board and global president. 

In an Oct. 31 press release announcing the staffing changes, Benbenisti touted NSO Group’s “high moral standards, ethical framework and compliance policies … and especially the willingness to continue improving at all fronts.”

NSO Group didn’t immediately comment on Benbenisti’s departure, but a source close to the company told Agence France-Presse that “because of the crisis with the US … Shalev decided that he still will sit on the chair of the CEO,” prompting Benbenisti to step down.  

Accusing NSO Group of acting “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the US,” the US Department of Commerce last week placed the Israeli firm on its so-called “entity list,” which restricts US companies from exporting certain technologies to those targets. The department also blacklisted a lesser known Israeli cyber firm, Candiru. 

An NSO spokesperson said the company “regrets” the US decision and would seek its reversal. 

An investigation by a consortium of international media outlets revealed this summer that NSO Group’s military-grade spyware had been used to successfully hack the smartphones of journalists, politicians, activists, heads of state and business leaders around the world. 

Using a leaked list of more than 50,000 phone numbers, journalists at 17 media outlets identified over 1,000 people across more than 50 countries who were selected as potential targets by NSO Group’s clients. The phone numbers of the ruler of Dubai’s daughter and his ex-wife, French President Emmanuel Macron and the fiancee of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi were reportedly included in the list. 

NSO Group is best known for its Pegasus software, which cyber experts say can be used to remotely access a phone’s contents, camera and microphone. The Israeli firm has pushed back on reports that its hacking technologies have been used to commit human rights abuses and says it licenses Pegasus to governments that are fighting terrorism and other crime. 

Benbenisti’s resignation comes days after rights groups Amnesty International and Front Line Defenders and digital watchdog group Citizen Lab said six Palestinian human rights defenders were hacked with Pegasus. One of the individuals was an American citizen and at least three worked for civil society organizations that Israel’s Defense Ministry recently accused of terrorism. 

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