US to review Israeli spyware firm NSO Group following renewed concerns

US to review Israeli spyware firm NSO Group following renewed concerns
US Department of Justice has reportedly asked WhatsApp to provide details of the users that were targeted by the spyware creator's software, even as the investigation into the company continues.
2 min read
01 March, 2021
The US is disturbed by the Israeli spyware [Getty]
The White House is looking into Israeli-owned spyware company NSO Group, which has been accused of spying on journalists and activists, including the late Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, for Gulf regimes.

The moves comes following a US intelligence report into the killing of Khashoggi, which has prompted lawmakers to revisit the role of spyware and surveillance tools that have been used to spy on individuals.

"The administration should do more to protect Americans from the surveillance that preceded and enabled the murder of Mr. Khashoggi," House Foreign Affairs Committee Vice Chair Tom Malinowski said in a statement to The Washington Post.

"I urge the administration to develop a comprehensive strategy for confronting the emerging transnational threat to democracy and human rights presented by companies that market such powerful tools of repression," Malinowski added.

Department of Justice lawyers requested details from the messaging app WhatsApp over the alleged targeting of 1,400 of its users by NSO Groups' government clients in 2019, a source told The Guardian.

Whilst NSO Group told the publication it was not aware of an investigation into its workings, this is not the first time it faced allegations that its clients have used its software to target people.

Microsoft is also urging Joe Biden's incoming administration to back the technology giant in a legal case against the Israeli security firm.

Microsoft's President Brad Smith has warned that private companies who engineer cybersecurity attacks, such as NSO Group, help proliferate cyber-weapons.

"[This industry] generates cyber-attack proliferation to other governments that have the money but not the people to create their own weapons. In short, it adds another significant element to the cybersecurity threat landscape," Smith said.

Smith specifically cited litigation in the US between NSO Group and WhatsApp, a popular messaging app that has alleged in a US court that NSO Group's spyware, called Pegasus, was used to target 1,400 of its users over a two-week period in 2019.

About 100 of the targets were members of civil society, including journalists, diplomats, senior government officials, and human rights campaigners, WhatsApp claimed.

NSO Group has denied any involvement in the alleged targeting of civil society.

The Israeli firm has also argued in US courts that it is immune from US law against hacking because it acts on behalf of foreign governments.

While a judge ruling on the case has largely dismissed the defence, NSO has appealed that decision to a higher appeals court.

A US appeal court judge is set to decide if the NSO Group should be given sovereign immunity in the WhatsApp case.

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