Israel: Amnesty brings legal case against NSO Group over spyware

NSO Group's offices in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv © JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images

Tech firm sells Pegasus spyware, used by repressive governments to target human rights activists 

‘The Israeli Government has stood by and watched it happen’ ­- Danna Ingleton

Amnesty spokespeople available at Tel Aviv court on Thursday afternoon

Israel must revoke the export licence of the technology company NSO Group whose spyware products have been used in malicious attacks on human rights activists around the world, said Amnesty International, ahead of a new legal action it is bringing against the Israeli tech firm. 

On Thursday, a judge at Tel Aviv’s District Court will begin hearing arguments over why Israel’s Ministry of Defence should restrict the activities of NSO Group.

The legal action is being brought by approximately 30 members and supporters of Amnesty International Israel, as well as others from the human rights community. 

Amnesty and other groups have documented the repeated use of NSO Group’s “Pegasus” spyware against peaceful activists around the world. Last October, Amnesty uncovered targeted digital attacks using Pegasus against two prominent Moroccan human rights defenders - academic and activist Maati Monjib and human rights lawyer Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui.

Previous research has shown how Pegasus has been used 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, the murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

In August 2018, an Amnesty staff member received a message on their phone with a link claiming to be about a protest outside the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Washington DC, sent at a time when Amnesty was campaigning for the release of jailed 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 Amnesty phone.

Thursday’s hearing is the latest legal action involving NSO Group. Last October, Facebook announced it was suing the firm after it exploited a vulnerability in the Facebook-owned WhatsApp messaging service to target at least 100 human rights defenders. 

This week’s legal case - due to begin at 12.30pm (local time) on Thursday 16 January at Tel Aviv District Court - is supported by Amnesty as part of a joint project with New York University School of Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and Global Justice Clinic. Last week, the Israeli Ministry of Defence asked the judge to dismiss the case or, if it were to go ahead, the defence ministry has requested a gagging order to restrict reporting on national security grounds. 

Danna Ingleton, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech, said: 

“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.

“The best way to stop NSO’s powerful spyware products reaching repressive governments is to revoke the company’s export licence, and that is exactly what this legal case seeks to do.

“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.”

Sukti Dhital, Executive Director of the Bernstein Institute for Human Rights, said: 

“In authorising exports by NSO - a company that has sold its invasive software products to governments known to abuse human rights - 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.”

NSO rebuttals unconvincing

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” last September, NSO has not accepted responsibility for the multiple reported instances of misuse of its surveillance technologies. 

All countries have an obligation to protect human rights in the context of corporate activities, including through regulation and oversight. Similarly, all companies have a responsibility to respect human rights throughout their operations and supply chains. This means they must avoid causing or contributing to human rights abuses and take steps to identify and address human rights risks in their operations.

View latest press releases