Israeli Court Issues Gag Order on NSO Hearing, Citing National Security Concerns

Court dismisses calls by cyber-surveillance firm to have lawsuit thrown out, but orders proceedings to happen behind closed doors

Logo of the Israeli NSO Group on a building housing their former offices, Herzliya, Israel, August 25, 2016
Daniella Cheslow,AP

Amnesty International's legal bid to have Israel revoke the export license of the Israeli NSO surveillance firm will be heard behind closed doors, an Israeli court ruled on Thursday, citing national security concerns.

By ordering the restriction, the Tel Aviv District Court accepted the Israeli Defence Ministry's request to ban the public and the media from court sessions.

NSO Group's software is alleged to have been used by governments to spy on journalists and dissidents. NSO has said it solely provides its technology to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies "to help them fight terrorism and serious crime".

In bringing the lawsuit, Amnesty said NSO continues to profit from its spyware being used to commit abuses against activists worldwide while the Israeli government has "stood by and watched it happen".

The Israeli Defense Ministry has said its supervision of defense exports is subject to constant scrutiny and periodic assessments by the relevant Israeli authorities.

In a statement, the ministry did not comment directly on whether it had sought a dismissal or gag order but said its supervision of defense exports was "subject to constant scrutiny and periodic assessments."

The ministry added that it does not comment on specific licences.

The Israeli company's cellphone hacking software, Pegasus, has been linked to political surveillance in Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, according to University of Toronto's Citizen Lab, which researches digital surveillance, security, privacy and accountability.

In October, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc, sued NSO in the 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 has denied the 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 by members and supporters of its Israel office, the organisation said NSO continues to profit from its spyware being used to commit abuses against activists across the world and the Israeli government has "stood by and watched it happen."

"The best way to stop NSO's powerful spyware products reaching repressive governments is to revoke the company's export license, and that is exactly what this legal case seeks to do," said Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech.

Amnesty Tech is described on Amnesty International's website as a global collective of advocates, hackers, researchers and technologies challenging "the systematic threat to our rights" by surveillance-based businesses.

Ingleton called for the hearings in Tel Aviv to be conducted in open court, saying the Defense Ministry "must not be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy when it comes to human rights abuses."

The ministry in a statement said its licensing assessments took into account various considerations such as "the security clearance of the product and assessment of the country toward which the product will be marketed."

"The issue of protecting human rights is a major factor in the process, as are policy and security considerations," it added in the statement on Tuesday.

NSO's phone hacking software has already been implicated in a series of human rights abuses across Latin America and the Middle East, including an espionage scandal in Panama and an attempt to spy on an employee of the London-based Amnesty group.

The company came under particular scrutiny over the allegation that its spyware played a role in the death of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

NSO, which was purchased by London-based private equity firm Novalpina Capital last year, announced in September it would begin abiding by UN guidelines on human rights abuses.