Zuckerberg: Israel’s NSO can defend itself in court over legality of its work
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Zuckerberg: Israel’s NSO can defend itself in court over legality of its work

Founder of Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, attacks spyware firm for allegedly hacking the hugely popular instant messaging platform to conduct cyberespionage

The founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 15, 2020 (Christof STACHE / AFP)
The founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg speaks during the 56th Munich Security Conference (MSC) in Munich, southern Germany, on February 15, 2020 (Christof STACHE / AFP)

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg on Saturday addressed a lawsuit filed by his company against NSO, saying the Israeli firm has the opportunity to defend itself in court against accusations its spyware was used to carry out cyberespoionage.

“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.”

In October, WhatsApp parent company Facebook filed suit in the US against NSO Group, accusing it of using the hugely popular instant messaging platform to conduct cyberespionage 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, according to a Reuters report.

An Israeli woman uses her phone in front of a building in Herzliya that housed the NSO Group intelligence firm, August 28, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP)

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 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 news agency reported. The investigation, which may not be solely focused on NSO, has been ongoing since 2017, according to Reuters.

NSO claims its software cannot be used on US numbers, but according to Reuters, the FBI is investigating whether the company obtained code from American hackers to infect smartphones.

NSO told the news agency it did not know of any FBI investigation. The FBI refused to comment on the report.

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

Washington Post owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talks during a ceremony near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the one-year anniversary of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi death, October 2, 2019. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

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 which 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.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

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