Spies Reportedly Tried to Discredit Critics of Controversial Israeli Spyware Firm NSO Group

February 11, 2019, 1:31 PM UTC

Undercover operatives allegedly approached and tried to discredit critics of controversial Israeli spyware company NSO Group, the Associated Press reported.

NSO Group’s smartphone hacking software allegedly helped Saudi Arabia track and ultimately kill journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Mexico allegedly used the same software to monitor human rights lawyers and government critics.

Six people targeted in the undercover operations say they believe the efforts were an attempt to get information that could be used to discredit them. The people include two cybersecurity experts who have research NSO’s software, three lawyers involved in lawsuits targeting NSO either in Israel of Cyprus, and a London-based journalist who has written about the litigation.

The journalism and a lawyer in Cyprus agreed to meetings and were surreptitiously recorded. The video was broadcast on Israeli television.

Mazen Masri, a London-based lawyer working on the lawsuit in Israel, told AP that the operatives sought “dirt and irrelevant information about people involved.”

One of the researchers was suspicious of being asked to a meeting and requested AP to show up and video the meeting. The operative in that case was identified as Aharon Almog-Assouline, a former Israeli security official.

“These lawsuits are nothing more than an empty PR stunt to continue the propaganda drumbeat against NSO’s work helping intelligence agencies fight crime and terrorism around the globe.” replied NSO after a request for further by Fortune. “Because of a gag order imposed by the courts, we will have nothing more to say.”

The tactics are similar to those involved in Harvey Weinstein’s alleged attempts to silence or discredit women charging him with sexual assault, according to a 2018 report by Ronan Farrow in the New Yorker.

Black Cube describes itself as a “select group of veterans from the Israeli elite intelligence units that specializes in tailored solutions to complex business and litigation challenges.”

Updated, Feb. 11, 2019, 5:30 p.m.: This story was updated from its original to add the statement from NSO.