A U.S. district judge will allow WhatsApp and parent Facebook to sue Israeli spyware maker NSO Group for allegedly sending surveillance malware to the cell phones of 1,400 people, including 100 journalists and human rights activists.
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A New York Times story claimed that NSO helped Saudi Arabia spy on Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi before he was murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October of 2018, Vice reported. U.S. intelligence linked Khashoggi’s murder to the Saudi Arabian government.
The Times helped uncover the use of NSO spyware on journalists, dissidents and consumer rights activists in Mexico. The spyware was found on the phone of the wife of a murdered Mexican journalist.
Israel oversees sales of Pegasus NSO’s spyware to foreign governments. Progress in the U.S. courts is drawing new attention to Israel’s increasingly open alliance with Saudi Arabia and other Persian Gulf monarchies, NYT reported.
Pegasus is “the preferred mobile spy tool of many governments,” the Times reported. “An early NSO commercial proposal leaked to The Times claimed Pegasus could overcome encryption to grant ‘unlimited access’ to everything on a target’s mobile device.”
Pegasus is installed remotely, does not require any action or engagement with the target and leaves no trace on the device.
In May 2019, WhatsApp identified and fixed a vulnerability that allowed hackers to load commercial spyware on phones just by calling the number of the device. In October, WhatsApp publicly attributed the attack to NSO, which also goes by the name Q Cyber Technologies.
Citizen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy, University of Toronto, volunteered to help WhatsApp identify cases where the suspected targets of the attack were members of civil society, such as human rights defenders and journalists.
As part of its investigation, Citizen Lab identified more than 100 cases of abusive targeting of human rights defenders and journalists in at least 20 countries in North America, Africa, Asia, Europe and the Middle East.
NSO claims that it sells its spyware to government clients only, and all its exports are overseen in accordance with Israeli government export laws. However, its technology continues to be used to target members of civil society, Citizen Lab reported.
Commercial spyware makers have been unregulated for years, partly because governments are their clients, the Times reported.
“They get close to governments and when those governments do bad things with their products, commercial spyware companies can claim it’s not their fault,” said Scott-Railton of Citizen Lab.
In 2019, private equity firm Novalpina Capital acquired a stake in NSO and has been trying to help NSO improve its image, highlighting the use of its technology to fight crime, such as the arrest of Mexican drug cartel head El Chapo.
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“Pegasus … appears to be in use by countries with dubious human rights records and histories of abusive behavior by state security services,” Citizen Lab reported. “We have found indications of possible political themes within targeting materials in several countries, casting doubt on whether the technology is being used as part of ‘legitimate’ criminal investigations.”
Ronald Deibert, the founder and director of Citizen Lab, said NSO should acknowledge and prevent abuse instead of “putting window-dressing on their increasingly smeared public profile,” according to a March 25, 2019, Vice report.
“Our (and others) data-driven, peer-reviewed and evidence-based research into NSO spyware shows indisputably that their technology has been used to target journalists, human rights defenders, staff at Amnesty International, research scientists, health advocates, and investigators into mass disappearances,” Deibert told Vice’s Motherboard in an email. “That’s not something you can PR out of peoples’ minds. You can dress up Frankenstein all you want, but deep down he’s still a monster.”