Tel Aviv court tells Facebook to unblock account belonging to NSO Group employee

Workers for Israeli spyware firm filed a lawsuit against the social media giant in November, saying their personal pages had been unfairly blocked

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg testifies before a House Financial Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, October 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

A Tel Aviv court on Tuesday ordered Facebook to unblock the private account of an employee of the Israeli spyware firm NSO Group.

The court is expected to hand down similar rulings for other NSO workers soon, according to a Reuters report.

Employees of the surveillance company filed a lawsuit against the social media giant in November, saying that Facebook had unfairly blocked their accounts when it sued NSO the month before.

NSO workers said their Facebook and Instagram accounts, and accounts belonging to their families and former company employees, were blocked.

“We are certain that following the court’s unequivocal statements, Facebook will reverse the action it took against other employees,” an NSO spokeswoman said.

In October, Facebook, which owns the WhatsApp messaging app, filed suit in the US against NSO Group, accusing it of using the hugely popular messaging platform to conduct cyber-espionage on nearly 1,400 journalists, diplomats, dissidents and human right activists worldwide.

Senior officials from some 20 countries that are allied with the United States were reportedly among the targets of the hacking campaign.

The Herzliya-based firm is best known for marketing Pegasus, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target’s cellphone camera and microphone and access data, effectively turning the phone into a pocket spy.

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

The company says it provides its software to governments for the sole purpose of fighting terrorism and crime.

But dissidents, journalists and other opposition figures have repeatedly claimed the company’s technology has been used by repressive governments to spy on them.

The FBI is investigating NSO over suspicions its products were used to hack American citizens’ phones and spy on foreign governments, according to a Reuters report last month.

Sources familiar with the investigation said the probe was attempting to look at whether NSO products were being used to gain access to phones belonging to Americans and whether any foreign nations were using tools to spy on US government officials or those of allies. The investigation, which may not be solely focused on NSO, has been ongoing since 2017, according to Reuters.

Also last month, independent UN rights experts said that the alleged Saudi hacking of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’s phone was likely carried out using NSO spyware. Bezos’s phone was reported to have been infiltrated through a WhatsApp account belonging to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The Israeli firm said in a statement it was “shocked and appalled” by the reports linking its software to the Bezos phone hacking, and asserted that its software was definitely not involved.

The spyware has also been implicated in the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. It is also said to be behind a campaign to compromise proponents of a soda tax in Mexico and an effort to hack into the phone of an Arab dissident that prompted an update to Apple’s operating system.

London-based Amnesty International, together with other human rights activists, is suing NSO in Tel Aviv to compel Israel’s Defense Ministry to revoke the export license it granted the company. Amnesty said the spyware has been used “in chilling attacks on human rights defenders around the world.”

On Saturday Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said NSO can defend itself in court against the cyber-espionage charges.

“They can defend themselves in court if what they think is legal,” he said, according to the Guardian, in response to a question from a Ynet news reporter. “But our view is that people should not be trying to hack into software that billions of people around the world use to try to communicate securely.”

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