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Human rights groups join Facebook to fight Israeli spyware maker NSO

US Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) (L) talks with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) during a rally with fellow Democrats before voting on H.R. 1, or the People Act, on the East Steps of the US Capitol on March 08, 2019 in Washington, DC. (AFP photo)
An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO Group in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, on August 28, 2016. (Photo by AFP)

A coalition of human rights and press freedom groups has filed a brief supporting Facebook Inc.’s lawsuit against the Israeli surveillance technology company NSO Group, stating that the firm prioritizes profits over human rights.

On Wednesday, eight organizations, including internet rights group Access Now, Amnesty International, Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Internet Freedom Foundation, submitted an amicus brief to the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco, noting that NSO's Pegasus hacking tool is “an insidious spyware product, and many of NSO’s customers are repressive regimes that use Pegasus for insidious ends.”

“Granting NSO immunity would not just undermine fundamental international legal protections for privacy, free expression, and association, it would seriously undermine civil society,” the amicus brief said.

Facebook last year launched a lawsuit against NSO Group, accusing the company of reverse-engineering and subverting its popular WhatsApp instant messaging service to send spyware to the devices of approximately 1,400 people, including attorneys, journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents worldwide in order to steal information from the users.

NSO Group is now trying to overturn a federal court decision that allowed the case to proceed.

Natalia Krapiva, legal counsel for Access Now, said NSO's hacking of WhatsApp “has enormous human costs.”

“The attack invaded the victims' privacy, damaged their reputation, and continues to endanger their work and livelihoods,” she said in a statement.

Krapiva added, “NSO actively facilitated targeting of these individuals, and the notion that they should now escape accountability in US courts because they were 'following orders' of dictators defeats any notion of justice.”

On Monday, a group of technology giants including Microsoft Corp., Dell, Google and Cisco Systems Inc. filed a similar brief that warned that NSO's hacking tools posed a danger to the safety of users across the internet.

The companies argued that granting NSO Group immunity would “further encourage the burgeoning cyber surveillance industry to develop, sell and use tools to exploit vulnerabilities in violation of US law.”

The companies said they were concerned that NSO Group’s spyware tools could ultimately be obtained by “malicious actors other than the initial customer,” whom they said could use the technology to “cripple infrastructure, commit large-scale financial crime, or cause other catastrophic damage.”

Separately, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, lodged another amicus brief, saying NSO had become “notorious for facilitating human rights abuses.”

NSO Group is well-known for selling hacking software to government clients.

According to the Israeli company’s marketing materials, once Pegasus has been covertly placed on a mobile phone, it can gather information about the device’s location, access its camera, microphone and internal hard drive, and record emails, phone calls and text messages.

The software had also been used to hack into the WhatsApp account of prominent dissident Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was brutally murdered and dismembered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.

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