Amnesty petitions court to revoke Israeli spyware firm’s export license

Move aims to halt NSO Group selling its wares overseas; Israeli Defense Ministry has put ‘human rights at risk’ by allowing sales of phone-tracking software to repressive states

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group, on August 28, 2016 in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)
An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group, on August 28, 2016 in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (AFP Photo/Jack Guez)

London-based Amnesty International, together with other human rights activists, has filed a petition to the District Court in Tel Aviv to compel Israel’s Defense Ministry to revoke the export license it granted to NSO Group, a Herzliya-based spyware developer, that Amnesty said has been used “in chilling attacks on human rights defenders around the world.”

The petition sets out how the ministry “has put human rights at risk by allowing NSO to continue exporting its products,” Amnesty said in a statement Monday.

The Defense Ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the court petition.

In August 2018 an Amnesty staff member was targeted by a particularly invasive piece of NSO Group software, which was also linked to attacks on activists and journalists in Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates, Amnesty said in the statement.

Pegasus, the firm’s phone tracking software, has put NSO in the global spotlight, with dissidents, journalists and other opposition figures claiming the company’s technology has been used by repressive governments to spy on them.

Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, January 29, 2011. (AP /Virginia Mayo, File)

Pegasus infects individuals’ phones by sending them text messages that tempt them to click an attached link. If the target clicks on the link, the company gains full control over the phone, including its contents and history, and the ability to activate its microphone and camera at will.

“NSO Group sells its products to governments who are known for outrageous human rights abuses, giving them the tools to track activists and critics. The attack on Amnesty International was the final straw,” said Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech, in the statement.

“The Israeli MoD has ignored mounting evidence linking NSO Group to attacks on human rights defenders, which is why we are supporting this case. As long as products like Pegasus are marketed without proper control and oversight, the rights and safety of Amnesty International’s staff and that of other activists, journalists and dissidents around the world are at risk.”

The legal action is supported by Amnesty International as part of a joint project with New York University (NYU) School of Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and Global Justice Clinic, which states that it seeks justice for human rights defenders targeted with malicious software.

“The targeting of human rights defenders for their work, using invasive digital surveillance tools, is not permissible under human rights law,” said the faculty director of the NYU School of Law Margaret Satterthwaite in the statement. “Without stronger legal checks, the spyware industry enables governments to trample on the rights to privacy, freedom of opinion and expression.”

“The Israeli government needs to revoke NSO Group’s export license and stop it profiting from state-sponsored repression,” she added.

The Amnesty statement said that research has documented the use of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to target “a wide swath of civil society,” including at least 24 human rights defenders, journalists and parliamentarians in Mexico; an Amnesty International employee; Saudi activists and allegedly the murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi, the statement said.

Amnesty said that although the NSO Group “claims it helps governments fight terrorism and crime,” it has “failed to rebut mounting evidence linking its products to attacks on human rights defenders.”

NSO Group said in a text message, in response to the petition, that it “operates according to the law and adheres to a clear ethical policy that is meant to prevent misuse of its technology. NSO only licenses its technology to approved government intelligence and law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of preventing and fighting crime and terror, according to clear definitions.

“In an age when terrorists and criminals hide behind sophisticated technologies, our products have helped stop human traffickers and crime and terror organizations and save the lives of thousands of people around the world.”

NSO was founded in 2010 by Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie.

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