The Israeli firm is now facing a lawsuit backed by Amnesty International, but the non-governmental organization fears its staff may be under surveillance spyware delivered leveraging the WhatsApp issue.
The lawsuit was filed in Israel by about 50 members and supporters of the human rights group. The organization calls on the Israeli ministry of defence to ban the export of the Pegasus surveillance software developed by NSO Group.
“An affidavit from Amnesty is at the heart of the case, and concludes that “staff of Amnesty International have an ongoing and well-founded fear they may continue to be targeted and ultimately surveilled” after a hacking attempt last year.” reads the post published by The Guardian.
“The Israeli government’s Defence Export Controls Agency has failed to exercise proper oversight “despite serious allegations of abuse”, the affidavit claimed, adding: “Because of DECA’s inaction, NSO Group can continue to sell its software to governments known to target human rights defenders.””
Officially the sale of surveillance software is limited to authorized governments to support investigation of agencies on criminal organizations and terrorist groups.
Unfortunately, its software is known to have been abused to spy on journalists and human rights activists.
In July, Citizen Lab collected evidence of attacks against 175 targets worldwide carried on with the NSO spyware. Citizen Lab uncovered other attacks against individuals in Qatar or Saudi, where the Israeli surveillance software is becoming very popular.
In August, an Amnesty International report confirmed that its experts identified a second human rights activist, in Saudi Arabia, who was targeted with the powerful spyware.
According to Joshua Franco, Amnesty’s head of technology and human rights, the trading of surveillance software is going out-of-control.
On August, the human rights group published a report that provides details on the attack against an employee at Amnesty International. The hackers attempted to compromise the mobile device of a staff member in early June by sending him a WhatsApp message about a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
The organization added that such kind of attacks is becoming even more frequent, a growing number of Israeli surveillance software being used to spy on human rights operators and opposition figures in the Middle East and beyond.
Amnesty International traced the malicious link in the message to the surveillance network of the Israeli firm NSO Group.
The Guardian reported that NSO Group already faced many other lawsuits, such as the one backed by Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi dissident based in Montreal. In December Abdulaziz filed a lawsuit in Israel in which he claimed that his phone was infected with the NSO spyware when he was in regular contact with the journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In November, Snowden warned of abuse of surveillance software that also had a role in the murder of the Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Khashoggi is believed to have been killed by Saudi Arabi’s agents, and the country has licensed NSO software in 2017, paying $55m for the technology.
NSO said it wants to demonstrate that it is not involved in any abuse of its technology, it prepared a report composed of 26 pages to reply to the accusations made by Amnesty and Citizen Lab.
It is curious that early 2019, a majority stake in NSO was acquired by the London based firm Novalpina Capital, founded by the banker and philanthropist Stephen Peel.
The Guardian reported an excerpt of the reply to Amnesty, signed by Peel, that states that in “almost all” the cases of complaints of human rights abuse raised, the alleged victim of hacking had not been a target or the government in question had acted with “due lawful authority”.
“We believe that the reality is different. We’ve seen them target human rights organisations and no evidence they’ve been able to effectively control governments when complaints have been raised.” replied Danna Ingleton, the deputy director of Amnesty’s technology division.