The battle in Israel to create an unhackable phone

Politicians and intelligence agencies are using the IntactPhone Co-founders of Communitake: Eran Karpen, left, and Ronen Sasson © Heidi Levine/FT Share on Twitter (opens new window) Share on Facebook (opens new window) Share on LinkedIn (opens new window) Save Save to myFT Mehul Srivastava in Yokneam JUNE 10, 2019

Nearly a decade ago, a young Israeli entrepreneur made a pair of bets — one on a company that claims it can hack any smartphone in the world and the other on a company that went on to develop a smartphone that is nearly unhackable. Today, those two companies, whose offices are less than hour’s drive apart in Israel’s northern tech corridor, are leading forces in the shadowy battle between surveillance and privacy. NSO Group, which is still run by the entrepreneur Shalev Hulio, is now valued at $1bn and its flagship product Pegasus is used by governments and intelligence agencies around the world to remotely and secretly hack smartphones. Often the very same governments and intelligence agencies also turn to Communitake Technologies, the designers of the chunky custom-built IntactPhone, to keep their own secrets out of reach of NSO’s technology.

“If this is an arms race, think of this technology like the Force in Star Wars,” said a cyber technology dealer, who has sold both offensive and defensive cybertechnology to governments. “If companies like NSO are the Dark Side of the Force, then people like Communitake are the Jedis.” When Mr Hulio first invested in Communitake, it had developed code that could remotely access a phone and root through its inner workings. With some 50 or so employees, Communitake chose a high-minded path: it licensed the technology to the likes of BlackBerry and Nokia so they could help users fix their phones remotely, and only after the phone’s owners permitted access.

But Mr Hulio foresaw that a second market, for mining smartphone data surreptitiously, was going to become very lucrative, and made a parallel investment in NSO, whose software worked similarly, but without asking for any consent. “Tech savvy terrorists and criminals [were concealing their communications and] going dark,” said Mr Hulio in a statement, adding that NSO was quickly approached by the intelligence community. “

Our technology could be key to preventing a terrorist attack.” By 2012, Communitake and Mr Hulio went their separate ways — his work at NSO was going to be “a shadow on our company,” said Ronen Sasson, Communitake’s chief executive. “While it was hard to leave behind a very successful company, it was an easy decision knowing we could help create a technology that would go on to save an untold number of lives,” said Mr Hulio. Communitake also changed course, setting off to build a phone that no one, even NSO, could hack.

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