NSO Pegasus Spy Software | Why One Of The Pegasus Inventors Became A Dropout

Three Israelis founded NSO. A lot is known about two, but the third got out early. For the first time he speaks about his story.

The third man, who helped develop the Pegasus spy software, is sitting in the meeting room of a law firm in Zurich and is trying to be open-minded. The late summer promenade of Lake Zurich is only one block away. Modern art hangs on the walls, there are two spy thrillers on the shelf - one of the firm's two lawyers writes them under a pseudonym. Thematically, that's entirely appropriate. Because the tall, slim person who holds out his hand to greet them was probably a secret service himself in the past and is still a phantom today. More than ten years ago he co-founded the Israeli company NSO Group, which has been criticized worldwide for its surveillance Trojan Pegasus. He got out after a short time, but the company logo still contains his name. His first name Niv contributed the N contained therein. Together with the initials of the first names of the co-founders Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, it became NSO. But because Niv spells his last name differently than previously known, hardly anything could be learned about himself. His name is always Carmi in Wikipedia and articles about NSO. He himself, however, writes to K. Why is that wrongly reproduced everywhere? No one who has written about him has asked him, he says.

Read also: Pegasus Project || Cyber Weapons

So Niv Karmi. He is in his late 30s, looks sporty, has dark hair and a dark beard that turns gray at the corners. He has rolled up his shirt sleeves and is smiling cautiously in a friendly manner. It's the first interview he's given about his past, and he's obviously feeling insecure about it, which is why it all starts in his lawyer's office. 

Finding Karmi was not so easy due to the different spelling. Colleagues at the Schweizer Wochenzeitung (WOZ) came across him by chance while researching the licenses of the local government for arms exports. Because Karmi has lived in Switzerland for six years and has set up her own company there. Polus Tech designs and sells portable cell towers. They can be used, for example, to quickly install a radio network in a disaster area if the public network has collapsed - just like during the floods on the Ahr. Even after an earthquake: People who have been buried can be located using the mobile phone signals if they have their mobile phone with them. Because technically, the devices work like so-called IMSI catchersused by law enforcement agencies to find and identify suspects' cell phones. Therefore, Polus Tech needs an official export license from the Swiss government for each of its businesses. Such products are called dual-use because they can be useful tools and dangerous weapons at the same time.

New customers for an initially civilian tool

Karmi are aware of the dangers of such technology. He makes a point of selling tools to save people from disasters: "It is important to me to do good." Climate change is one of our biggest problems, he thinks. He wanted to help cope with the consequences, wanted to build something meaningful. It sounds like this wish has something to do with his experiences from the time he was with NSO. Because there the development was exactly the other way around. 

Hulio and Lavie, who run NSO to this day, originally developed a civilian tool, a useful service for cell phone companies. Thanks to their software, they were able to maintain their customers' cell phones remotely. To do this, the company sent an SMS with a link. If cell phone owners clicked on the link, the company's technicians got access to the device and were able to change settings and thus help customers to get the most out of their cell phones. At some point, secret services came to them and asked whether they could be used to build a surveillance instrument - at least that is the official version of the NSO's founding, told by Shalev Hulio.

"I was in the system"

Niv Karmi tells a slightly different story. A friend put him in contact with Hulio and Lavie because he knew about the world of intelligence and the two were looking for someone, says Karmi. Because Hulio and Lavie had the idea to build a monitoring tool out of their civil remote maintenance software in order to open up a new market. They saw an opportunity and came to him, "because I was the one who had experience, with the product, with the knowledge. I had been in the system."

Read more: Pegasus Surveillance Software || Vulnerable

Karmi served in the Israeli army until he was in his mid-twenties and advanced to major. He doesn't want to say exactly what his duties were. Only so much that he was "in one of the top special forces working on the secret service" and was also responsible for the fight against terrorists. When asked whether he worked for the Israeli foreign intelligence service Mossad, as it is rumored about him, he does not want to answer. But he doesn't deny it either. All he says is that he knew about such surveillance tools. He had recently left the army and was looking for a job in business. Together with Hulio and Lavie, he then developed the concept for the Pegasus spy software.

NSO has been selling these to police and intelligence agencies around the world for more than ten years. The company says it has 45 customers in 36 different countries. Pegasus costs millions. But people who attended demonstrations to potential customers report how impressed government officials are with the capabilities of the software. All you have to do is enter a telephone number, and Pegasus can then completely take over the corresponding mobile phone within a short time and turn it into a locating bug. It works almost everywhere in the world.  

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Initially, the attacked person also had to click on a link, as with the remote maintenance software. In order to increase the chance of this, text messages tailored to the interests of the victims were sent, which looked, for example, like an order confirmation or a message from a news page. However, NSO has long since found ways to sneak into the devices secretly and unnoticed by exploiting loopholes and weak points in the mobile phone software. Once the program has established itself, it copies all the data and information it can find and sends them to the monitors. Pegasus reads every mail, every message, whether it comes from an encrypted messenger or not. The program sucks everything off before the encryption takes effect.

Read more: French Head Of State "Emmanuel Macron" Was Also The Target Of Pegasus Espionage

Authorities in almost every country buy such technology or develop it themselves. Cell phones have become too important in the fight against crime and terrorism; everyone wants to be able to monitor them. But who is monitoring the supervisors? After all, such a powerful weapon harbors great dangers. As a consortium of Amnesty International, the research network Forbidden Stories and 17 editorial offices, Pegasus is being used by many governments to take action against civil rights activists, opposition activists and journalists. Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, Morocco - many countries illegally use cyber weapons against their political opponents and against critics. NSO will definitely terminate their contracts, but usually only when the abuse is also publicly known. There are indications that the company can very well see what customers are doing with Pegasus.  

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Edward Snowden speaks of a spying industry that has gotten out of control. The entire industry is based on a lie, he told the consortium of the Pegasus project. "They claim to save lives and prevent crime, but in many countries this software is used every day to spy on people who are not legitimate targets." And the manufacturers of such software know that too, says Snowden. "They sell to any reliable customer who they feel can get away with and will not be discovered." 

Programs like Pegasus need more control

Karmi used to be on the supervisor's side himself. He therefore also shows understanding for their work. It is not easy to find terrorists. Tools like Pegasus are essential for this. Secret services often have to follow a lot of small clues in order to identify a perpetrator and yes, sometimes innocent people come under surveillance. Unfortunately, that is unavoidable. But Karmi also sees the dangers. He rejects mass surveillance methods and knows that such a thing can damage a democratic society. Espionage programs like Pegasus also need strict controls, he thinks. It is therefore important to regulate such weapons and only use them in a very targeted manner. Precisely because the technology is so risky, it needs more responsibility in its use. 

Read more: "Unauthorized" surveillance by Indian government agencies

Anyone who speaks to him experiences a thoughtful person who can be seen to have come a long way. As a young man it was a matter of course for him to serve as a soldier. He grew up in a world where the army was considered the best way to support his country. After all, Israel is faced with deadly threats, with hatred and suicide bombers. He learned a lot in the army, but at some point it was no longer his life. He got out and worked for a project that helped farmers in Ethiopia plant castor trees to make oil from the seeds. That was something completely different, but it was a good experience, he says. Then came NSO.

There, too, it was important to him to develop something meaningful. "In the beginning, the vision was to do good with NSO," says Karmi. But soon it came to a break with the other two founders, their main concern was business. But things like Pegasus should not "exist for their own sake" and should not be a mere commodity, Karmi believes. "When I realized that others would assess our goals differently, I said goodbye."

It's not about quick money

The NSO Group is now worth an estimated $ 1.5 billion. If Karmi had stayed, he would be very rich today. But he doesn't care. He doesn't like to talk about this time and in no way wants to be reduced to NSO. It was all a long time ago. He doesn't regret it, it is just part of his life, he says, but he has long since ceased to be concerned with NSO. He left the company behind, as did Israel, the army and the world of intelligence. 

Today he lives near Zurich, is married and has one child. He raves - in English - about Switzerland and likes to talk about his own company. In the past he wanted to help his home country above all, today he is more concerned with all people. Even if it is obviously not that easy to sell your mobile emergency radio networks. During the floods on the Ahr, he offered his help and also negotiated with the technical relief organization, says Karmi. Without a result. He is now thinking about cooperating with universities or setting up a foundation. He says: "For me it has always been about the effects of my own actions. Not just about making a quick buck."

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