In brief: Controversial security firm NSO Group scored a win in an Israeli court, after being accused of profiting from tools that are used by human rights abusers. The company still faces a long string of legal fights though, including one with Facebook-owned WhatsApp.
Back in 2018, human rights group Amnesty International sued NSO in an Israeli court, alleging the latter was exporting spyware tools that end up in the hands of clients that have a penchant for abusing them to target certain individuals, including Amnesty activists. Naturally, NSO denied the accusations as unfounded and reaffirmed that it only sells its cyber tools to government agencies that need it to disrupt terrorist and criminal plots.
The lawsuit was prompted by a discovery made by a few Amnesty International activists who received carefully crafted WhatsApp messages with links to certain websites that, when clicked, would install some of the most potent spyware out there, dubbed Pegasus. After investigating the matter, the activists found that the domain names corresponded to a list of over 600 suspicious websites that had been linked to NSO Group.
For the activist group, the findings suggested an attempt had been made by NSO “clients” to target Amnesty employees, especially since they closely resembled similar campaigns used against journalists and activists in the recent past in countries like Saudi Arabia, Mexico, Morocco, and the UAE.
However, a Tel Aviv District Court judge dismissed the lawsuit due to insufficient evidence to support the allegations against NSO Group. That means the company will continue to export its surveillance tech, and Israel’s Ministry of Defense remains confident about its ability to guarantee the tools won’t be used to violate human rights.
An NSO spokesperson applauded the court’s decision and noted “the judgement is irrefutable evidence that the regulatory framework in which we operate in is of the highest international standard. […] Advanced encryption by terrorists and criminals necessitates the kind of legal and proportionate response that NSO provides to authorised and verified government agencies.”
Danna Ingleton, who is co-director of Amnesty Tech, lamented the court’s decision, describing it as a “cruel blow to people put at risk around the world by NSO Group selling its products to notorious human rights abusers.”
But, of course, this is only a small win for NSO Group, as the company is embroiled in several other lawsuits. A notable example is the one filed by Facebook last year, alleging that NSO facilitated a sophisticated cyberattack on thousands of WhatsApp users using fake servers. The Israeli company has chosen not to defend their actions in court, explaining that Facebook had lied in its court filing. As for its defense strategy, it looks like NSO is planning to work a novel “sovereign immunity” angle.