US senator probing Israeli firm NSO Group over suspected spying on Americans
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US senator probing Israeli firm NSO Group over suspected spying on Americans

Move by Oregon Democrat comes after WhatsApp filed suit against spyware company alleging widespread abuse; NSO employees sue Facebook for suspending their accounts

In this April 9, 2019, photo, US Senate Finance Committee ranking member Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
In this April 9, 2019, photo, US Senate Finance Committee ranking member Senator Ron Wyden, an Oregon Democrat, speaks during a hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

A US senator is probing the issue of possible hacking of American citizens by companies that include NSO Group, weeks after a major lawsuit by WhatsApp against the Israeli spyware firm, a report said Tuesday.

Last month, the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging service filed a lawsuit in the US against 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.

Reuters reported at the time 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. They were said to include an opposition leader in India.

According to Reuters, victims of the hacking 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.

The Israeli firm has said it only licenses its software to governments for “fighting crime and terror.”

In this photo from August 28, 2016, an Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed NSO Group. (Jack Guez/AFP)

“If foreign surveillance companies like NSO are helping their foreign government customers hack or spy on Americans, particularly US government employees and contractors, that would raise serious national security issues,” Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon told the Guardian Tuesday. “I am looking into this topic, and expect to have more to say in the coming weeks.”

Wyden, the top Democrat on the US Senate finance committee, told The Guardian  he had asked the Commerce Department to update his office on the implementation of regulations that would bar US citizens from helping “foreign military intelligence services” without first getting a US license, apparently referring to WhatsApp’s role in the NSO program.

“Congress has a clear role in ensuring that Americans are not helping authoritarian governments to hack or engage in other similar conduct that raise human rights concerns,” he said.

Facebook said in October it was seeking a federal injunction to block NSO from being able to use WhatsApp. The suit also calls on the court to order NSO Group to stop any such attacks and asks for unspecified damages.

Employees of the Israeli company meanwhile have sued Facebook in Tel Aviv District Court, claiming the social media platform has suspended their Facebook and Instagram accounts without notice or explanation, along with accounts of former employees and even family members.

The employees are alleging “collective punishment” by Facebook, and say it hasn’t responded to repeated requests to unblock the suspended accounts, Israel’s Channel 12 reported.

“The blocking of our private accounts is a harmful and unjust step by Facebook toward us,” the employees are arguing. “Additionally, the knowledge that personal data about us was searched and used troubles us deeply.”

This photo from February 19, 2014, shows WhatsApp and Facebook app icons on a smartphone. (AP/Patrick Sison)

Facebook responded to that report by saying the alleged hacks by NSO “justified the suspension of relevant accounts” and that the move “continues to be necessary for security reasons, including preventing further abuse.”

NSO Group came to prominence in 2016 when researchers accused it of helping spy on an activist in the United Arab Emirates.

Its best-known product is Pegasus, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target’s phone camera and microphone, and access data on it.

AFP contributed to this report.

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