'Dangerous weapon': Amnesty demands Israel rein in shadowy NSO spyware company

'Dangerous weapon': Amnesty demands Israel rein in shadowy NSO spyware company
The Israeli NSO Group's software has allegedly been used by governments to spy on journalists and dissidents around the world.
3 min read
16 January, 2020
The case calls for Israel to revoke the spyware firm's export license. [Getty]

An Israeli court on Thursday heard a case brought by Amnesty International calling for restrictions to be slapped on NSO Group, an Israeli company that makes surveillance software that has been used to target journalists and dissidents around the world.

The case, brought by Amnesty International, calls for Israel to revoke the spyware firm's export license, preventing it from selling its contentious product abroad, particularly to regimes that could use it for malicious purposes.

"They are the most dangerous cyber weapon that we know of and they're not being properly overseen," said Gil Naveh, spokesman for Amnesty International Israel. "That is the reason why we think that their license should be revoked."

The legal bid to revoke NSO's export licence was heard behind closed doors after a Tel Aviv judge cited security concerns in ordering the restriction, which was requested by the Israeli ministry of defence.

"Israel's ministry of defence has once again sought to avoid the full glare of public scrutiny," Amnesty International said.

Read more: The Israeli company 'behind' WhatsApp, Khashoggi, Qatari emir hacks

"NSO Group's chilling spyware has put the lives of human rights activists around the world in danger," the group added. 

"There remains a clear public interest for this case to be heard in open court and we remain hopeful that information about the hearing will be shared with the public."

Thursday's hearing is expected to be the only one in the case, Naveh said, and a decision is set to be handed down in the coming days.

NSO is implicated in a series of digital break-in attempts and the court case is the latest pushback against the company and its product.

Last year, Facebook sued the hacker-for-hire company in US federal court for allegedly targeting some 1,400 users of its encrypted messaging service WhatsApp with highly sophisticated spyware.

In 2018, Amnesty said one of its employees had been targeted with the malware, saying a hacker tried to break into the staff member's smartphone, using a WhatsApp message about a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington as bait.

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.

Read more: Facebook sues Israeli company after planting illegal WhatsApp spyware

An Associated Press investigation last year found that critics of NSO were targeted in elaborate undercover operations in which operatives tried to discredit them. NSO has denied involvement.

NSO Group's flagship malware, called Pegasus, allows spies to effectively take control of a phone, surreptitiously controlling its cameras and microphones from remote servers and vacuuming up personal data and geolocations.

NSO does not disclose the identities of its clients, but they are believed to include Middle Eastern and Latin American states. The company says it sells its technology to Israeli-approved governments to help them stop militants and criminals.

The company said it would not comment on the case because it revolves around a demand directed at Israel's defence ministry, but last year NSO announced that it had adopted "a new human rights policy" to ensure its software is not misused.

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