An Israeli court has rejected a request to strip the controversial Israeli spyware firm NSO Group of its export license over the suspected use of the company’s technology to target journalists and dissidents worldwide.
The case, brought by Amnesty International in January, called on the court to prevent NSO from selling its technology abroad, especially to repressive regimes.
NSO has faced multiple accusations of cyber-espionage on human rights activists and others, including by the messaging service WhatsApp, which is suing the company in a US court.
Many of the allegations have centered on the company’s Pegasus product, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target’s cellphone camera and microphone and access data on it, effectively turning the phone into a pocket spy.
Amnesty claimed the technology was used against one of its staffers and petitioned to revoke its Defense Ministry-issued export license.
The Tel Aviv District Court ruled that Amnesty’s attorneys did not provide sufficient evidence “to prove the claim that an attempt was made to track a human rights activist by trying to hack his cellphone” or that the hacking was done by NSO.
“Granting a license is done after the most rigorous process and also after granting the permit, the authority conducts oversight and close inspection, as necessary,” the court said. If human rights are found to be violated, that permit can be suspended or canceled, it added.
The court issued its ruling on Sunday, but only made it public on Monday.
NSO Group said in a statement that the company “will continue to work to provide technology to states and intelligence organizations, and that its purpose is to save human lives.”
Amnesty was not immediately available for comment.
In 2018, Amnesty claimed one of its employees was targeted by NSO’s malware, saying a hacker tried to break into the staffer’s smartphone using a WhatsApp message about a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington as bait.
The company has been accused of selling its surveillance software to repressive governments that use it against dissidents. It doesn’t disclose clients, but they are believed to include Middle Eastern and Latin American states. The company says it sells its technology to Israeli-approved governments to help them combat criminals and terrorism.
Last month, Amnesty alleged that NSO spyware was used against Moroccan journalist Omar Radi, who was convicted in March over a social media post.
Amnesty said that Radi had been “systematically targeted by the Moroccan authorities due to his journalism and activism.”
The company declined to comment on any business it conducts in Morocco but said it was “troubled” by the allegations and would look into them.
A Moroccan court gave Radi a four-month suspended sentence for criticizing a judge in a tweet.
A Saudi dissident has accused NSO of involvement in Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in 2018.
NSO has been in the headlines since 2016 when researchers accused it of helping spy on an activist in the United Arab Emirates.
Founded in 2010 by Israelis Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, NSO Group is based in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. It says it employs 600 people in Israel and around the world.