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Israel court rejects calls to revoke NSO Group's spy software export licence

Human rights group say that several governments have used NSO's Pegasus software to monitor activists and journalists
Activists claim that Pegasus software was used by Riyadh to spy on Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi before his death (MEE)

A court in Tel Aviv has rejected a ruling to order Israel to revoke the export license of the NSO Group, the country's largest surveillance company, whose software has reportedly been used by governments to spy on dissidents and human rights activists. 

Judge Rachel Lavi Barkai ruled that Amnesty International and 30 human rights activists, who had filed the petition against Israel's defence and foreign ministries, had failed to provide evidence that NSO's Pegasus software was used to spy on activists from the UK-based NGO. 

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Chen Brill-Egri, a human rights activists who joined Amnesty's petition against NSO, condemned Barkai's decision on Monday. 

"It looks like the judge endorsed the defence ministry's talking points as they are. There's an infinite list of weapons deals with repressive, murderous regimes," Egri told Israel's Haaretz newspaper. 

Commenting on her ruling, Barkai said that she was convinced the Israeli government had taken the necessary precautions to "revoke or suspend" NSO's licence if they breached human rights. 

“A permit is issued following a strenuous process... [and] I am convinced that the oversight procedures and the handling of requests for permits for defence export are meticulous,” said Barkai. 

NSO has been linked to a number of claims that its Pegasus software has been used by government's including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to spy on dissidents. 

Injection process

Rights groups claim Pegasus allows governments to "obtain access to targeted individuals' private data, including the ability to secretly control a target's mobile device" by injecting into its network.

Previous techniques relied on a user clicking on a malicious link which installed the software.

This could then access a person’s phone data, including their contacts, text messages, photos, call history and location information.

But network injections are able to infect the device, mostly unknown to the victim, by allowing an automatic and invisible redirection of their browsers and apps to sites that are under the attackers' control.

NSO software 'used in Morocco' 

Earlier this month, Amnesty revealed that NSO's software was used to spy on a prominent Moroccan journalist and human rights defender Omar Radi. 

In October 2019, Amnesty published a report outlining how NSO’s hacking software had been used against two other Moroccan human rights defenders, Maati Monjib and Abdessadek El Bouchtaoui.

Israeli spyware used by Moroccan government to target journalist, Amnesty claims
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NSO defended its product, saying that it sold its spy software and technical support exclusively to governments and that those tools were to be used in pursuit of suspected terrorists and other criminals. 

In September, the company unveiled a new policy that said it was committed to human rights.

The company said it would investigate any substantiated reports that indicated abuse of its technology and that it would terminate contracts with clients it found using its technology illegally.

However, Amnesty’s latest report reveals that the targeting of Radi happened three days after NSO’s new policy was released.

'The worst of the worst'

In October, US whistleblower Edward Snowden said Pegasus had been used by the Saudi authorities to monitor Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi before his death.

"They are the worst of the worst," Snowden said of NSO.

Another prominent critic of the Saudi government, activist Omar Abdulaziz, said his phone had been hacked during the summer of 2018, when access had been obtained to more than 400 text messages between him and Khashoggi.

In October 2019, messaging app WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against NSO, accusing it of unlawfully seeking to track journalists, human rights activists and others.

The lawsuit accused the company of seeking to infect approximately 1,400 "target devices" with Pegasus, which could be used to steal WhatsApp users' information.

NSO denied the claims and has said that its government clients were ultimately responsible for the way its technology is used.

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