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Fear Not Washington, the US is Still Miles Ahead in Cyber Spying: The Case of Israeli NSO Group

By Alex Lo

SCMP, July 21, 2020 


Hatice Cengiz, the fiancée of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi.



Fear not Washington, the US is still miles ahead in cyberspying

America has levelled charges against disbanded Chinese network security firm Hainan Xiandun, conveniently in time to distract people from the news cycle over Israeli cybersecurity specialist NSO Group and its notorious spyware Pegasus

Whatever dodgy cyber activities the Chinese network security firm Hainan Xiandun is being accused of by the United States, it doesn’t concern you and me. For one thing, despite the big fuss being made by US prosecutors, the mainland firm has already been disbanded .

NSO Group, an Israeli cybersecurity company at the cutting edge of network surveillance, has not been accused by Washington of anything. But the firm produces the kind of surveillance software that should worry everyone.

Among products it has made and sold to governments and state agencies is a malware called Pegasus . It can infect any device that operates on an iOS or Android system to extract text, sound and visual contents as well as data and records.

Washington wants you to know all about Hainan Xiandun, but not NSO. It has even marshalled the European Union to denounce the Chinese firm, which it claims was linked to the communist state.

But EU officials such as Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, are much more alarmed by how the Israeli-made spyware has been used by some NSO clients.

“Against any kind of rules we have in the European Union,” von der Leyen said. “Free press is one of the core values of the EU. It is completely unacceptable if this [hacking] were to be the case.”

Why the outrage?

An international group of investigative reporters has identified more than 1,000 victims from over 50 countries, from a list of some 50,000 infected phone numbers.

Among them were the slain journalists Jamal Khashoggi, from Saudi Arabia, and the Mexican Cecilio Pineda Birto as well as Khashoggi’s fiancée.

Others include opposition politicians such as India’s Rahul Gandhi, business executives, human and labour rights activists, and journalists from around the world.

Whatever Hainan Xiandun did happened between 2011 and 2018. Its hacking methods were described as primitive, even by the standards of those years.

NSO Group’s surveillance is cutting edge. If a private Israeli company can commercialise high-end spyware for governments on an industrial scale, you can be sure the US and Israel have the same or better capabilities.

After all, NSO says it only sells to legitimate governments and state agencies.

It so happens that Washington’s allegations of old crimes, whether real or trumped-up, come during its intensifying anti-China campaign, and just in time to distract the news cycle over NSO’s Pegasus. Convenient timing, indeed!


This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Fearful US still way ahead in cyberspying.

Alex Lo has been a Post columnist since 2012, covering major issues affecting Hong Kong and the rest of China. A journalist for 25 years, he has worked for various publications in Hong Kong and Toronto as a news reporter and editor. He has also lectured in journalism at the University of Hong Kong.

Fear not Washington, the US is still miles ahead in cyberspying | South China Morning Post (


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