JERUSALEM — The CEO of Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, which has been accused of selling software allowing repressive governments to secretly eavesdrop on their critics, has stepped down as part of an internal reshuffle, the company said Sunday.
NSO has been mired in a global backlash and legal action over its alleged sales of Pegasus software to governments and other clients, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Hungary and India. The software has been used to spy on political activists, embassy employees, human rights advocates, journalists and even at least one president.
NSO has denied any wrongdoing in the licensing of its technologies. The company says it sells its military-grade spyware to a secret list of government clients to stop criminals, terrorists and pedophiles.
The company said Sunday that Hulio’s resignation was part of a broader reorganization aimed at focusing sales to members of NATO, the Western military alliance. The company also fired around 100 of its 700 employees.
The firm “will examine all aspects of its business, including streamlining its operations to ensure NSO remains one of the world’s leading high-tech cyber intelligence companies,” it said in a statement.
Last year investors warned that the company risked defaulting on its debt.
While NSO is privately owned, Israel’s Defense Ministry must preapprove any export of cyberwarfare technologies. Critics say Israel’s political interests influenced Pegasus sales to governments with long track records of human rights abuses.
Washington blacklisted NSO in November for acting “contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests” of the United States.
The move followed an investigation by a consortium of news organizations, including The Washington Post, showing how foreign governments used the spyware to hack journalists and activists, among them American citizens.
Pegasus spyware was used to hack the phone of Spain’s president while other world leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, have been found on lists of possible targets.
The spyware also secretly targeted the smartphones of the wife and fiancee of murdered Saudi dissident and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi, an investigation by The Post last year found.
Both WhatsApp, which is owned by Meta, and Apple have filed lawsuits against NSO Group for using their services to hack users.
In April, the European Parliament set up a committee to investigate Pegasus and “whether this use has breached E.U. law and fundamental rights.”
Hulio co-founded NSO Group in 2010, after he and his partner, Omri Lavie, said they were encouraged by law enforcement to turn their then-small company that did troubleshooting for smartphones by remotely accessing the devices into something bigger.
In July 2021, Hulio defended his company, telling The Post that “all we hear is this campaign that we are violating human rights,” while he knew but could not disclose “how much life has been saved globally because of our technology.”