Inside the secretive Israeli spyware startup scene, where the notorious NSO Group has spawned a web of companies that hack into devices
- The Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group has been accused of selling sophisticated digital surveillance technology to Saudi Arabia and other countries that have allegedly used it to attack dissidents and journalists.
- Despite the controversy, the company is extremely profitable.
- NSO Group's founders and alumni have spawned a web of more than a dozen similar startups, many of which operate in secret, that sell attacks against routers, computers, smart speakers, and other digital devices.
- For more stories, go to the Business Insider SA homepage.
Spend some time in the shadowy world of companies that sell "offensive cyber capabilities" - secret tools that let you hack into phones, computers, and other digital devices to spy on their users - and one outfit looms large.
It sits at the centre of a bustling but discreet ecosystem of startups based in Israel that specialise in bypassing, undermining, and counteracting the security features of our digital environment, granting clients in some cases nearly unrestricted access to the texts, calls, and conversations of almost anyone they choose.
There are more than a dozen such companies in Israel, according to investors and employees in the space, though many of them are operated in stealth by founders who have left miraculously little trace of their existence on the internet.
And chief among them is NSO Group, the largest company at the cutting edge of offensive cybersecurity.
NSO Group's founders say its technology, which focuses on compromising smartphones, is designed with the noble purpose of helping governments combat terrorism and crime.
But the startup became the target of international outrage this year following allegations that its software, called Pegasus, was used by a rogues' gallery of countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico to attack reporters, dissidents, and political targets.
But as a startup, NSO Group is a runaway a success. It has been valued at $1 billion (R14 billion) - a fortune in the Israeli tech environment, where the most successful companies get acquired for less than $500 million (R7 billion). And it's wildly profitable, Business Insider can report: It made $125 million (R1.8 billion) in profit last year.
All that money has spawned a new web of highly specialised startups funded by NSO Group's founders and investors, known in tech circles as "the NSO Mafia," which sell niche tools to penetrate WiFi routers, home speakers, and other devices.
These companies often describe their wares as "lawful interception" or "intelligence" tools, though this hardly tells the full story. They all sell tools that take devices and turn them against their users to secretly spy without leaving a trace.
Whatever you call this technology, business is booming. Governments and law enforcement agencies around the world are paying millions of dollars. And startups both inside of Israel and out are ready to sell.
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