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Israeli Spyware Developer NSO Fights Coronavirus with Data Analysis

An Israeli software developer, best known for its controversial surveillance technology, is testing a new mobile application to track individuals’ physical contacts to help stem the rising tide of coronavirus infections, reports said.

The NSO Group’s mobile software compiles and sifts large volumes of data by tracking cell phone information from a known infected person over a two-week period during when the individual is likely to exhibit symptoms of the contagion, Bloomberg reported, based on a source with knowledge of the product.

NSO’s data is then mapped to the individual’s location information gathered by major carriers to detect people in close proximity to the infected person who could potentially contract the virus. A person has to give his or her consent if they have the virus for officials to match the SIM card in their cell phone to their actual identity, Bloomberg’s source said.  An NSO spokesperson told Bloomberg the company had developed a new data-analysis product that can map the spread of the epidemic and help contain it.

So far, about a dozen companies are field testing the software, the report said. The unnamed product, which NSO sells to national health organizations, is the first the company has offered for civilian use. While NSO’s flagship Pegasus spyware is sold only to foreign governments (more about that later), the new platform isn’t tailored for surveillance activities and reportedly does not track phones.

The eight-year old NSO’s hacking crew carries with it a boatload of controversy. The company, which had quietly gained notoriety among the discreet cybersecurity community for its ability to crack encrypted iPhones, had somehow managed to remain behind the curtains until the FBI and Justice Department locked horns with Apple over cracking into the iPhones used in the San Bernardino, California terrorist mass shooting in 2015.

The developer licenses its Pegasus spyware to national security and law enforcement agencies worldwide. In the right hands, the spyware enables authorities to track down terrorists by doing what spies do — reading emails and texts, poring over contacts, listening to and recording conversations, using the phone’s microphones and cameras.

But in the wrong hands, such as dictators and human rights activists, it can be abused, and reportedly is being used for political espionage. For example, Saudi Arabian operators are suspected of using NSO's technology to spy on murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an accusation the company has denied.

And, its spyware may have been used to hack the phone of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Furthermore, Citizen Lab, a human rights watchdog, said in a 2017 report that it uncovered roughly two dozen cases in Mexico, let alone dictatorships in the Middle East, where the Pegasus software was aimed at political rivals, reporters, and civil rights lawyers.

Now the company that claims it fights terrorist with surveillance software is using its technology to fight the corona virus, an illness that could kill millions worldwide. “We can use any technology to fight this horrible disease,” Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, head of the democracy in the information age program at the Israel Democracy Institute research center, told Bloomberg. “Who will promise that after this is over, we won’t become a surveillance democracy?”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the technology “will greatly assist us in locating patients and thereby stop the spread of the virus.” He called for “strict oversight” of the tools “to ensure they would not be abused,” Bloomberg said.

D. Howard Kass

D. Howard Kass is a contributing editor to MSSP Alert. He brings a career in journalism and market research to the role. He has served as CRN News Editor, Dataquest Channel Analyst, and West Coast Senior Contributing Editor at Channelnomics. As the CEO of The Viewpoint Group, he led groundbreaking market research.