For the affordable price of $650,000, Israeli company NSO Group will enable you to invisibly spy on 10 iPhone owners without their knowledge. The cost is a little higher for Blackberry users (5 for $500,000).. and there is a 17% maintenance fee every thereafter to ensure “leaving no traces whatsoever.” Welcome to the new world of private companies selling surveillance tools to the ‘average joe’…
Since its founding six years ago, the NSO Group has kept a low profile. But, as The New York Times reports, last month, security researchers caught its spyware trying to gain access to the iPhone of a human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates. They also discovered a second target, a Mexican journalist who wrote about corruption in the Mexican government.
NSO is one of a number of companies that sell surveillance tools that can capture all the activity on a smartphone, like a user’s location and personal contacts. These tools can even turn the phone into a secret recording device.
The company is one of dozens of digital spying outfits that track everything a target does on a smartphone. They aggressively market their services to governments and law enforcement agencies around the world.
The industry argues that this spying is necessary to track terrorists, kidnappers and drug lords.
The NSO Group’s corporate mission statement is “Make the world a safe place.” Now, internal NSO Group emails, contracts and commercial proposals obtained by The New York Times offer insight into how companies in this secretive digital surveillance industry operate.
The New York Times points out that critics note that the company’s spyware has also been used to track journalists and human rights activists.
“There’s no check on this,” said Bill Marczak, a senior fellow at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. “Once NSO’s systems are sold, governments can essentially use them however they want. NSO can say they’re trying to make the world a safer place, but they are also making the world a more surveilled place.”
The NSO Group’s capabilities are in higher demand now that companies like Apple, Facebook and Google are using stronger encryption to protect data in their systems, in the process making it harder for government agencies to track suspects. Since it is privately held, not much is known about the NSO Group’s finances, but its business is clearly growing.
Two years ago, the NSO Group sold a controlling stake in its business to Francisco Partners, a private equity firm based in San Francisco, for $120 million.
Nearly a year later, Francisco Partners was exploring a sale of the company for 10 times that amount, according to two people approached by the firm but forbidden to speak about the discussions.
In its commercial proposals, the NSO Group asserts that its tracking software and hardware can install itself in any number of ways, including “over the air stealth installation,” tailored text messages and emails, through public Wi-Fi hot spots rigged to secretly install NSO Group software, or the old-fashioned way, by spies in person.
Much like a traditional software company, the NSO Group prices its surveillance tools by the number of targets, starting with a flat $500,000 installation fee. To spy on 10 iPhone users, NSO charges government agencies $650,000; $650,000 for 10 Android users; $500,000 for five BlackBerry users; or $300,000 for five Symbian users — on top of the setup fee, according to one commercial proposal.
You can pay for more targets. One hundred additional targets will cost $800,000, 50 extra targets cost $500,000, 20 extra will cost $250,000 and 10 extra costs $150,000, according to an NSO Group commercial proposal.
There is an annual system maintenance fee of 17 percent of the total price every year thereafter.
What that gets you, NSO Group documents say, is “unlimited access to a target’s mobile devices.” In short, the company says: You can “remotely and covertly collect information about your target’s relationships, location, phone calls, plans and activities — whenever and wherever they are.”
And, its proposal adds, “It leaves no traces whatsoever.”
* * * The cone of personal privacy is shrinking at an every-accelerating pace and we wonder whether private companies’ “consulting efforts” such as those NSO offfers are the military’s ‘non-boots-on-the-ground’ “advisers” political workaround for the security state amid every growing public concerns over big brother?