Amnesty demands Israel prevent NSO from...
Amnesty International said it will petition the courts to revoke the export license of NSO Group, an Israeli firm that makes phone spyware that the rights group says is being used to violate civil rights. The firm’s Pegasus software has been used to target journalists and activists across the globe – including in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates, United States, and Pakistan.
NSO Group’s best-known product is Pegasus, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target’s smartphone camera and microphone, and access data on it. There have been numerous claims that NSO Group software is being used to hack government officials, journalists and dissidents across the globe.
NSO Group claims it helps governments fight terrorism and crime, but it has failed to rebut mounting evidence linking its products to attacks on human rights defenders. Although the company says it undertakes a rigorous review before sales of its products, these claims lack detail and, considering the number of attacks on civil society, appear to have been ineffective in numerous cases. Despite announcing a new ‘Human Rights Policy’ in September, NSO has not accepted responsibility for the multiple reported instances of misuse of its surveillance technologies.
Amnesty has in the past also claimed that one of its own employees was targeted by the company’s spyware. In August 2018, an Amnesty International staff member received a message which contained a link purporting to be about a protest outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington. It was sent at a time when Amnesty International was campaigning for the release of Saudi women human rights activists. If clicked, the link would have secretly installed NSO malware, allowing the sender to obtain near-total control of the phone.
Previous research also exposed the use of Pegasus to target at least 24 human rights defenders, journalists and parliamentarians in Mexico; Saudi activists Omar Abdulaziz, Yahya Assiri, Ghanem Al-Masarir; award-winning Emirati human rights campaigner Ahmed Mansoor; and allegedly, murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
“NSO continues to profit from its spyware being used to commit abuses against activists across the world and the Israeli government has stood by and watched it happen,” said Danna Ingleton, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech. “The best way to stop NSO’s powerful spyware products reaching repressive governments is to revoke the company’s export license, and that is exactly what this legal case seeks to do.”
The legal action is being brought by approximately 30 members and supporters of Amnesty International Israel and others from the human rights community. The action is supported by Amnesty International as part of a joint project with New York University (NYU) School of Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and Global Justice Clinic.
“In authorizing exports by NSO the Ministry of Defence has failed in its human rights law obligations to protect the rights to privacy, freedom of expression and freedom of opinion,” said Sukti Dhital, Executive Director of the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights.
Last week, the Ministry of Defence asked the judge to dismiss the case, or if it proceeds to grant a gag order to restrict reporting on national security grounds. “It is overwhelmingly in the public interest and for press freedom that this case is heard in open court. The Ministry of Defence must not be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy when it comes to human rights abuses,” said Danna Ingleton.
The Defense Ministry declined to comment on Amnesty’s case against the NSO Group license, saying it doesn’t issue statements on individual cases. However, the ministry noted that its methods for monitoring defense exports are “subject to constant scrutiny and periodic assessments,” Reuters reported.
In October, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc, sued NSO in the U.S. federal court in San Francisco, accusing it of helping government spies break into the phones of about 1,400 users across four continents. In November, Environmental Protection Minister Ze’ev Elkin, a member of the high-level security cabinet, said that the government has no involvement in the actions of the NSO group, telling a radio station the company is “a private player using capabilities that Israelis have.”