Defense Ministry said to ask Tel Aviv court to dismiss case

Amnesty to petition for revoking of export license of Israeli spyware firm NSO

Rights group says NSO Group’s claimed reviews of software sales to prevent misuse ‘appear to have been ineffective,’ company profits from ‘abuses’; firm denies allegations

The logo of the Israeli company NSO Group is displayed on a building where it had offices in Herzliya until 2016. (AP Photo/Daniella Cheslow)
The logo of the Israeli company NSO Group is displayed on a building where it had offices in Herzliya until 2016. (AP Photo/Daniella Cheslow)

Amnesty International said Tuesday it will petition the courts to revoke the export license of NSO Group, an Israeli firm that makes phone spyware that the rights group says is being used to violate civil rights around the world.

A petition will be filed at Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday, the London-based human rights organization in a statement.

NSO Group’s best-known product is Pegasus, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target’s smartphone camera and microphone, and access data on it. There have been numerous claims that NSO Group software is being used to hack government officials, journalists and dissidents across the globe.

Amnesty has in the past also claimed that one of its own employees was targeted by the company’s spyware.

“Although the company says it undertakes a rigorous review before sales of its products, these claims lack detail and, considering the number of attacks on civil society, appear to have been ineffective in numerous cases,” Amnesty said.

“NSO continues to profit from its spyware being used to commit abuses against activists across the world and the Israeli government has stood by and watched it happen,” charged Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech, in the statement.

Amnesty said that last week the Defense Ministry petitioned the court to dismiss their petition, or, if it goes ahead, sought a gag order on reporting on deliberations on grounds of national security.

“It is overwhelmingly in the public interest and for press freedom that this case is heard in open court,” Ingleton said. “The Ministry of Defense must not be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy when it comes to human rights abuses.”

The Defense Ministry declined to comment on Amnesty’s case against the NSO Group license, saying it doesn’t issue statements on individual cases. However, the ministry noted that its methods for monitoring defense exports are “subject to constant scrutiny and periodic assessments,” Reuters reported Tuesday.

Illustrative photo of an Android smartphone (screenshot: YouTube)

In November, Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a member of the high-level security cabinet, said that the government has no involvement in the actions of the NSO group, telling a radio station the company is “a private player using capabilities that Israelis have.”

The Amnesty lawsuit is being filed as part of a project with New York University (NYU) School of Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and Global Justice Clinic, the organization said.

In December the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that phones of some two dozen Pakistani officials were allegedly targeted by spyware developed by the company.

The suspected technology was believed to have taken advantage of a security vulnerability in the WhatsApp messaging application.

A month earlier NSO was accused of hacking an Indian opposition politician’s phone during the country’s election period.

That revelation came days after the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging service filed a lawsuit in the US against the NSO Group, accusing it of using the hugely popular instant messaging platform to conduct cyber espionage on nearly 1,400 journalists, diplomats, dissidents and human right activists worldwide.

Also in November, Reuters reported that senior government and military officials from some 20 countries allied with the United States were targeted, citing people familiar with WhatsApp’s internal investigation.

According to Reuters, victims of the spying campaign included people in the United States, Mexico, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Pakistan and India, but it was unclear whether government officials in those countries were affected.

Nearly two dozen activists, lawyers and journalists were targeted in India — WhatsApp’s biggest market with some 400 million active users — according to Indian media reports.

In December 2018 Amnesty International said an employee was targeted with NSO Group surveillance software

NSO Group came to prominence in 2016 when researchers accused it of helping spy on an activist in the United Arab Emirates. The Israeli firm has said it only licenses its software to governments for “fighting crime and terror.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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