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NSO chairman steps down after domestic spying allegations in Israel

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The company has been embroiled in scandal after reports its spyware was used to monitor protesters

Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

The chairman of NSO Group, the Israel-based company whose spyware has been used to surveil journalists and human rights defenders around the world, has stepped down following allegations that it was also used to monitor Israeli citizens.

News of former NSO chairman Asher Levi’s resignation was reported by Haaretz on Tuesday, although Levi told the Associated Press that his departure had been planned months in advance and was unconnected to current news.

NSO has been embroiled in a domestic scandal since last week when the Hebrew-language business newspaper Calcalist reported that police in Israel had possessed Pegasus spyware since 2013. Calcalist alleged that the spyware had been used to monitor protest leaders and other anti-government activists, though the Israeli police commissioner claimed that all monitoring activity was conducted within the boundaries of the law. Following the reports, Israel’s attorney general announced an investigation into the claims.

The attention given to the new allegations in Israel suggests surveillance of domestic targets may draw more scrutiny from Israeli legislators than previous operations conducted by NSO. Pegasus spyware has been identified on the devices of journalists and activists around the world, and phone numbers of government officials, including heads of state, were found in a list of potential targets. The spyware was also implicated in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist and Washington Post correspondent.

After the revelations about the global deployment of Pegasus spyware, the Israeli government reportedly set up a task force to manage the fallout and handle diplomatic concerns. But more recently, international pressure on the company has mounted after the US Department of Commerce placed NSO on a blacklist preventing American companies from providing it with goods or services.