Israeli Court Rejects Request to Revoke Spyware Firm NSO's Export License

Tel Aviv judge 'endorsed the Defense Ministry’s talking points,' human rights activist charges, as petitioners claim the court ignored evidence that NSO's phone hacking software was used to spy on journalists and dissidents

Oded Yaron
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A man walks past a screen showing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a commemoration event of his supporters in Istanbul, November 11, 2018.
A man walks past a screen showing Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi during a commemoration event of his supporters in Istanbul, November 11, 2018.Credit: Ozan Kose/AFP
Oded Yaron

A Tel Aviv court rejected on Sunday a request to order Israel to revoke the export license of spyware firm NSO Group, whose software is alleged to have been used by governments to spy on journalists and dissidents. 

LISTEN: Protests, pandemics and Netanyahu's day of reckoningCredit: Haaretz

District Court Judge Rachel Lavi-Barkai ruled that Amnesty International and the about 30 human rights activists who filed the petition against Israel’s defense and foreign ministries failed to provide evidence to show that NSO’s cellphone hacking software Pegasus was used to spy on Amnesty activists, despite many reports by rights groups.

“I’ve been convinced that the oversight procedures and the handling of requests for permits for defense export are meticulous,” Lavi-Barkai said, stressing that “A permit is issued following a strenuous process.” The Israeli authorities, the judge said, continue to oversee such projects even after a permit is issued, “And take measures to revoke or suspend it” if they conclude there’s a risk for human rights.

Amnesty's Israel branch said a "mountain of evidence was ignored" and called the court "a rubber stamp to the Defense Ministry's impunity to human rights violations".

Human rights activist Chen Brill-Egri, one of the petitioners, said “It looks like the judge endorsed the Defense Ministry’s talking points as they are. There’s an infinite list of weapons deals with repressive, murderous regimes … What are they if not clear proof… that the export of  Israeli security [services] is blind to human rights violations?”

A sign in NSO Group's offices, 2014.
A sign in NSO Group's offices, 2014.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Despite the judge’s statement, Pegasus has been linked to political surveillance in Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, according to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which researches digital surveillance, security, privacy and accountability. According to an Amnesty investigation released last month, Morocco spied on a local journalist using NSO’s tools.

In the most prominent case of using Pegasis against dissidents, the company was tied to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in his country’s consulate in Istanbul in October 2018. Later that year, Montreal-based Saudi activist Omar Abdulaziz filed a lawsuit against NSO, claiming that the company’s software was used to hack his cellphone in order to track his conversations with the murdered journalist.

Activists and journalists protest after a criminal complaint following a report that their smartphones had been infected with spying software, in Mexico City, June 23, 2017.
Activists and journalists protest after a criminal complaint following a report that their smartphones had been infected with spying software, in Mexico City, June 23, 2017.Credit: Carlos Jasso/Reuters

In October, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc, sued NSO in U.S. federal court in San Francisco, accusing it of helping government spies break into the phones of about 1,400 users across four continents.

Targets of the alleged hacking spree included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials.

NSO denied these allegations, saying it solely “provides technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime.”

In Amnesty’s case, brought before the court by members and supporters of its Israel office, the organization said NSO continues to profit from its spyware being used to commit abuses against activists across the world and that the Israeli government has “stood by and watched it happen.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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