Israeli court lets NSO keep selling spyware to repressive governments

Al Jazeera  /  July 13, 2020

Amnesty says Pegasus spyware is used by repressive governments to target human rights activists and journalists.

An Israeli court has rejected a request to strip the controversial Israeli spyware firm NSO Group of its export licence over the suspected use of the company’s technology in targeting journalists and dissidents worldwide.

The case, brought by Amnesty International in January, called on the court to prevent NSO from selling its technology abroad, especially to repressive governments.

The Tel Aviv District Court ruled that Amnesty’s lawyers did not provide sufficient evidence “to prove the claim that an attempt was made to track a human rights activist by trying to hack his cell phone” or that the hacking was done by NSO.

“Granting a license is done after the most rigorous process and also after granting the permit, the authority conducts oversight and close inspection, as necessary,” the court said. If human rights are found to be violated, that permit can be suspended or cancelled, it added.

The court issued its ruling on Sunday, but only made it public on Monday.

Gil Naveh, spokesman for Amnesty International Israel, said the group was disappointed but not surprised.

“It’s been a long-standing tradition for the Israeli courts to be a rubber stamp for the Israeli Ministry of Defense,” he said.

The group does not know what evidence NSO or the Defense Ministry gave to the court, because the hearings were closed. “Even if we knew, we were not able to talk about it,” he said.

In 2018, Amnesty claimed one of its employees was targeted by NSO’s malware, saying a hacker tried to break into the staffer’s smartphone, using a WhatsApp message about a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington as bait.

NSO, an Israeli hacker-for-hire company, uses its Pegasus spyware to take control of a phone, its cameras and microphones, and mine the user’s personal data.

The company has been accused of selling its surveillance software to repressive governments that use it against dissidents. It does not disclose clients, but they are believed to include Middle Eastern and Latin American states. The company said it sells its technology to Israeli-approved governments to help them combat criminals and terrorism.

NSO Group said in a statement that the company “will continue to work to provide technology to states and intelligence organizations,” adding that its purpose is to “save human lives”.

In a report published last month, Amnesty International said Moroccan journalist Omar Radi’s phone was tapped using NSO’s technology as part of the government’s efforts to clamp down on dissent.

A Saudi dissident has accused NSO of involvement in Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing in 2018.