Home » In Video From Gaza, Former CEO of Pegasus Spyware Firm Announces Millions for New Venture

In Video From Gaza, Former CEO of Pegasus Spyware Firm Announces Millions for New Venture

It was an unusual place for a tech company to announce a successful $33 million round of venture capital fundraising. But, on November 7, former NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio and two colleagues stood in the Gaza Strip, stared into a laptop’s built-in webcam, and did exactly that.

“We are here on the Gaza border,” said Hulio, the Israeli entrepreneur, on a little-noted YouTube video released by his new start-up, Dream Security. Hulio, a reservist who had been called up for duty, appeared in the video with a gun slung over his shoulder.

“It’s very emotional,” he said. “After all of us being here, some of us reserves, some of us helping the government in many other ways, I think that doing it here is a great message to the high-tech community and the people of Israel.”

Hulio, who stepped down from his role at NSO in August 2022, was sending a clear signal: He was back.

After a rocky few years, marred by revelations about the role of NSO’s spyware in human rights abuses and the company’s blacklisting by the U.S. government, Hulio and his team were using the moment — timed exactly one month after Hamas’s attack — to announce lofty ambitions for their new cybersecurity firm, Dream Security.

“Israeli high-tech is not only here to stay, but will grow better out of this,” said Michael Eisenberg, an Israeli American venture capitalist and Dream co-founder, in the promo video. “It’s going to deliver on time, wherever it’s needed, to whatever country or whatever company it’s needed at.”

Their new project is another cybersecurity company. Instead of phone hacking, though, Dream — an acronym for “Detect, Respond, and Management” — offers cyber protection for so-called critical infrastructure, such as energy installations.

Dream Security builds on the successful team NSO put together, with talent brought on board from the embattled spyware firm. At least a dozen of NSO’s top officials and staffers, along with an early investor in both NSO and Dream, followed Hulio to Dream since its founding last year.

Lawyers for Dream Security who responded to The Intercept’s request for comment said the companies were distinct entities. “The only connection between the two entities is Mr. Hulio and a small portion of talented employees who previously worked at NSO Group,” said Thomas Clare, a lawyer for Dream, in a letter. Liron Bruck, a spokesperson for NSO Group, told The Intercept, “The two companies are not involved in any way.”

“It’s worrying. It seems like a new way to whitewash NSO’s image and past record.”

Now, with so many NSO people gathered under a new banner, critics are concerned that their old firm’s scandals will be forgotten.

“It’s worrying,” said Natalia Krapiva, tech-legal counsel at Access Now, a digital rights advocacy group. “It seems like a new way to whitewash NSO’s image and past record.”

At the same time, NSO Group is also using Israel’s war effort to try and revamp its own reputation. After Pegasus, NSO’s phone hacking software, was exposed for its role in human rights abuses and the firm was blacklisted in the U.S., the company suffered years of financial troubles. In the new year, it seemed to be bouncing back, with Israeli media reporting on its expansion and reorganization.

Clare, Dream’s lawyer, stressed that Hulio was no longer affiliated with NSO. “Currently, Mr. Hulio holds no interest in NSO Group—not as an officer, employee, or stockholder,” Clare wrote to The Intercept. “Since Dream Security’s foundation in late 2022, he has exclusively led the company.”

With Hulio at its helm, Dream boasts an eclectic and influential leadership team with connections to various far-right figures in Israel, Europe, and the U.S. — and an ambitious plan to leverage their ties to dominate the cybersecurity sector.

A view of the entrance of the Israeli cyber company NSO Group branch in the Arava Desert on Nov. 11, 2021, in Sapir, Israel.

Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

New Mission, Same Executives

Hulio has said that, with Dream, he moved from the “attack side to defense” — focusing on defending infrastructure, including gas and oil installations. A jargon-laden blurb for the company brags that it delivers surveillance to detect threats and an unspecified “power to respond fast.”

“Dream Security’s product is a defensive cybersecurity solution to protect critical infrastructure and state-level assets,” Clare said. “Dream Security is not involved in the creation, marketing, or sale of any spyware or other malware product.”

Clare said that Dream’s mission is “to enable decision-makers to act promptly and efficiently against any actual and potential cyber threats, such as malware attacks committed by states, terrorist organizations, and hacker groups, among others.”

Kathryn Humphrey, another Dream lawyer and an associate at Clare’s firm, said in one of a series of emails, “Dream Security is not involved with offensive cyber, nor does it have an intention of becoming involved with offensive cyber. Dream Security is developing the world’s best AI-based defensive cyber security platform, and that is its only mission.”

The Intercept found that 13 former NSO staffers now work at Dream Security — about a fifth of the new company.

The mission may be new, but Dream is staffed in part by NSO veterans. A recent report from the Israeli business press said Dream has 70 employees, 60 of them in Israel. The Intercept found that 13 former NSO staffers now work at Dream Security — about a fifth of the new company.

“Dream Security recruited the best talent to achieve its goal of becoming the globally leading AI-based cyber security company,” said Humphrey in a letter to The Intercept. “A small minority is top talent from NSO Group, including executives and other employees.”

In addition to Hulio himself, former top NSO officials permeate the upper echelons of Dream. From the heads of sales to human resources to their legal departments, at least seven former executives from NSO now hold positions at Dream in the same jobs. Five additional Dream employees — from security researchers to software engineers and marketing designers — formerly worked at NSO.

Dream’s lawyers told The Intercept that the “only overlap” between the companies were Hulio and former NSO employees, but other people tie NSO history and Dream’s present together. In one case, it was familial: Gil Dolev, one of Dream’s founders, is the brother of Shiri Dolev, who, according to NSO spokesperson Bruck, was NSO Group’s president until last year. (Shiri Dolev did not respond to a request for comment.)

The two companies also share at least one investor. Eddy Shalev, the first investor in NSO, told The Intercept he had put money into Dream. “I was an early investor in NSO,” Shalev said. “I am no longer involved with NSO. I did invest in Dream Security.”

Asked about Shalev’s investments in Dream and NSO, Humphrey said, “While Eddy Shalev is a valued investor, he is not a major investor—his investment is roughly 1% of the overall amount invested in Dream Security.”

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, left, accompanied by his lawyer Walter Suppan, right, arrives at court on the first day of his trial in Vienna, Austria, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023. Kurz is charged with making false statements to a parliamentary inquiry into alleged corruption in his first government. (AP Photo/Heinz-Peter Bader)

Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz arrives at court on the first day of his trial in Vienna on Oct. 18, 2023. Kurz is charged with making false statements to a parliamentary inquiry into alleged corruption in his first government.

Photo: Heinz-Peter Bader/AP

Austria’s Mini-Trump

From its inception, Dream Security’s strategy was based around an in-house connection to the international right. Former Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, dubbed “Austria’s mini-Trump,” is a Dream co-founder.

The former chancellor was forced to step down from the Austrian government in October 2021, facing corruption allegations and he remains on trial for related charges. 

Along the way, Kurz had made powerful friends. He reportedly has relationships with top officials around Europe and the U.S., including right-wing Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán, and Jared Kushner, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and former top adviser. Last year, Kurz joined Kushner on the honorary advisory council to the Abraham Accords Peace Institute, a group set up to foster normalization between Israel and Gulf monarchies like the United Arab Emirates — the very authoritarians that used NSO’s Pegasus software to crack down on dissidents.

For all his connections to powerful politicians, experts said Kurz was never purely an ideologue. “Kurz is really a political professional,” said Laurenz Ennser-Jedenastik, a professor of Austrian politics at the University of Vienna. “He never struck anybody as extremely convicted of anything. I think his personal career and business were always the number one priority.”

“Kurz is really a political professional. … I think his personal career and business were always the number one priority.”

Once Kurz was out of government, he pivoted to the world of tech investment. He first met the cyber-spying titan Peter Thiel in 2017 and landed a job at one of the far-right billionaire’s firms, Thiel Capital, in 2021. Thiel, one of the largest donors to right-wing causes in the U.S., is deeply involved in the world of spy tech: His company Palantir, which allows for the sorting and exploitation of masses of data, helped empower and expand the U.S. government’s international spy machine.

When Dream’s creation was announced, Kurz’s connections to Thiel — and therefore Palantir — raised alarms. In the European Parliament, lawmakers in the Committee of Inquiry to investigate the use of Pegasus and equivalent surveillance spyware took note.

“The cooperation between Kurz and Hulio constitutes an indirect but alarming connection between the spyware industry and Peter Thiel and his firm Palantir,” said a committee report earlier this year. (Thiel is not involved with NSO or Dream, a person familiar with his business told The Intercept.)

In November, nearly 80 percent of the European Parliament voted to condemn the European Commission for not doing enough to tackle spyware abuse, including NSO’s Pegasus software, across member states.

Questions have cropped up about whether Dream will, like NSO before it, sell powerful cybersecurity tools to authoritarian governments who might use them for nefarious purposes.

Asked by the Israeli business publication Globes about where Dream would sell its wares, Kurz said, “This is a company that was founded in Israel and is currently looking to the European market.”

According to Globes, Kurz was brought on to open doors to European governments. Dream has said that its customers already include the cybersecurity authority of one major European country, though it has declined to say which.

Over time, Europe has become a strong market for commercial cybersecurity firms. Sophie in ’t Veld, a European parliamentarian from the Netherlands who led the charge on the Pegasus committee resolution, told The Intercept, “Europe is paradise for this kind of business.”

The Israeli Right

Dream’s right-wing network is nowhere more concentrated than in Israel itself. Venture capitalist Dovi Frances, a major Republican donor who led Dream’s recent $33 million fundraising round, is close to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And Lior Atar, head of cyber security at the Israeli Ministry of Energy for six years, was directly plucked from his government role to join Dream earlier this year.

Dream officials’ entanglement with the Israeli right also extends to grassroots right-wing movements. Two investors and Hulio are involved in a ground-level organization considered to be Israel’s largest militia, HaShomer HaChadash, or “the new guardians.” A Zionist education nonprofit established in 2007, HaShomer HaChadash says it safeguards Israel’s agricultural lands, largely along the Gaza border. 

“I look forward to building Dream, against all odds, to become the world’s largest cybersecurity company. Mark my word: It fucking will be.”

Eisenberg, the Dream co-founder, chairs HaShomer HaChadash’s board. Hulio became a HaShomer HaChadash board member in May 2017 — a month before NSO Group was put up for sale for $1 billion — and has donated nearly $100,000 to the group. (Neither Dream nor HaShomer HaChadash responded to questions about whether Hulio remains on the board.) Another Dream investor, Noam Lanir, has also been vocal about his own contributions to the organization, according to Haaretz.

HaShomer HaChadash has a budget of approximately $33 million in 2022, of which over $5 million came from the government, according to documents filed with the Israeli Corporations Authority. The group is staffed in part by volunteers as well as active-duty personnel detailed from the Israeli military.

“They seem like a mainstream organization,” said Ran Cohen, chair of the Democratic Bloc, which monitors anti-democratic incitement in Israel. “But in reality, the origins of their agenda is rooted in the right wing. They have also been active in illegal outposts in the West Bank.”

For Dream, HaShomer HaChadash is but one node of its prolific links to the right at home and abroad. With those connections and the business chops that brought the world NSO Group, Dream — as the name itself suggests — has large ambitions. “I look forward to building Dream, against all odds, to become the world’s largest cybersecurity company,” Frances, the VC, said from the U.S. in the YouTube video announcing the successful fundraising drive. “Mark my word: It fucking will be.”

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January 2024