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NSO files defamation lawsuit against Calcalist over reports on police use of spyware

Ricky Ben-David is The Times of Israel’s Tech Israel editor and reporter.

An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo with a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An Illustration of a man holding his phone with an NSO Group logo with a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli spyware company NSO Group files a defamation lawsuit against financial daily Calcalist, owned by Yedioth Ahronoth, as well as the publication’s founder and publisher and its editor-in-chief, over a series of articles alleging that the Israel Police illegally used the company’s spyware against activists, journalists, and government officials without judicial oversight.

The lawsuit, filed at the Magistrate’s Court in Rishon Lezion, demands NIS 1 million ($309,000) in damages.

NSO had previously warned that it would sue Calcalist for a number of exposés in recent weeks that alleged police misuse of NSO’s powerful cyber espionage tool, Pegasus, and sparked an uproar in Israel that led to a Justice Ministry probe and calls for a state commission of inquiry.

Earlier this month, Calcalist reported, without providing evidence, that dozens of high-profile figures — including former ministry directors, prominent business figures and family members and associates of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — were spied on by police using the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without any judicial oversight.

In its lawsuit Sunday, lawyers for NSO write that Calcalist’s series was not part of a “journalistic investigation but a one-sided, biased and false reporting that was made public in circumstances that raise real concerns regarding its purpose.”

The suit takes aim at a report published last Tuesday by Calcalist saying that NSO offers its clients a way to cover its tracks after a breach, by deleting or amending logs on compromised cellphones. The article was taken down from the Calcalist site after NSO sent a warning letter.

NSO maintains that it does not operate Pegasus for its clients and is not exposed to the information its clients gather on targets via cloud architecture.

“Contrary to the lie that the newspaper chose to publish, the systems ‘log’ a complete record of all the actions performed by the client and the client has no option to change or delete the documentation,” the lawsuit says.

NSO said the lawsuit was filed “solely for the purpose of uncovering the truth and presenting it publicly,” adding that any damages awarded by the court would be given to various organizations working “for the welfare of Holocaust survivors and victims of sexual assault.”

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