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Rights groups join Facebook in lawsuit against Israeli NSO Group

In amicus brief filed in US Court of Appeals, rights groups say NSO prioritises profit over human rights
The Israeli NSO Group is well-known for selling hacking software to government clients.
Israeli NSO Group is well known for selling hacking software to government clients (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

A coalition of human rights groups has joined Facebook's legal fight against Israeli spyware vendor NSO, alleging that the company prioritises profits over human rights, following a similar move by a number of leading tech companies, including Google and Microsoft.

The organisations, including internet rights group Access Now, Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, filed an amicus brief - a supporting document filed to a court by parties not directly involved in the case - on Wednesday in support of Facebook's lawsuit against NSO.

The suit accuses the Israeli company of subverting Facebook's WhatsApp instant messaging service to infect 1,400 "target devices" of human rights activists and dissidents worldwide, in order to steal information from the users.

In response to Facebook's lawsuit, NSO argued last year that it should benefit from "sovereign immunity" because it works on behalf of unidntified sovereign government clients. However, in July a judge denied the firm's request to dismiss the lawsuit. NSO is now appealing to overturn the ruling, and it is this appeal attempt that the tech firms are pushing back against.

"Granting NSO immunity would not just undermine fundamental international legal protections for privacy, free expression, and association, it would seriously undermine civil society," Wednesday's amicus brief said.

It was filed before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and adds weight to the legal battle between Facebook and NSO, which began when the lawsuit was filed in October 2019.

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

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

"NSO actively facilitated targeting of these individuals, and the notion that they should now escape accountability in U.S. courts because they were 'following orders' of dictators defeats any notion of justice."

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

The Electronic Frontier Foundation, a digital rights group, filed a separate amicus brief alleging that NSO had become "notorious for facilitating human rights abuses".

The Israeli company is well-known for selling hacking software to government clients.

Its Pegasus spyware has repeatedly been deployed by multiple entities, including foreign governments, to hack into the devices of journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders, and political dissidents.

The software had also been used to hack into the WhatsApp account of Middle East Eye columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.