NSO accused of largest attack on civil society through its spyware

October 30, 2019

I blogged about the spyware firm NSO before [see e.g. https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/09/17/has-nso-really-changed-its-attitude-with-regard-to-spyware/], but now WhatsApp has joined the critics with a lawsuit.

On May 13th, WhatsApp announced that it had discovered the vulnerability. In a statement, the company said that the spyware appeared to be the work of a commercial entity, but it did not identify the perpetrator by name. WhatsApp patched the vulnerability and, as part of its investigation, identified more than fourteen hundred phone numbers that the malware had targeted. In most cases, WhatsApp had no idea whom the numbers belonged to, because of the company’s privacy and data-retention rules. So WhatsApp gave the list of phone numbers to the Citizen Lab, a research laboratory at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs, where a team of cyber experts tried to determine whether any of the numbers belonged to civil-society members.

On Tuesday 29 October 2019, WhatsApp took the extraordinary step of announcing that it had traced the malware back to NSO Group, a spyware-maker based in Israel, and filed a lawsuit against the company—and also its parent, Q Cyber Technologies—in a Northern California court, accusing it of “unlawful access and use” of WhatsApp computers. According to the lawsuit, NSO Group developed the malware in order to access messages and other communications after they were decrypted on targeted devices, allowing intruders to bypass WhatsApp’s encryption.

NSO Group said in a statement in response to the lawsuit, “In the strongest possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them. The sole purpose of NSO is to provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime. Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists.” In September, NSO Group announced the appointment of new, high-profile advisers, including Tom Ridge, the first U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security, in an effort to improve its global image.

In a statement to its users on Tuesday, WhatsApp said, “There must be strong legal oversight of cyber weapons like the one used in this attack to ensure they are not used to violate individual rights and freedoms people deserve wherever they are in the world. Human rights groups have documented a disturbing trend that such tools have been used to attack journalists and human rights defenders.”

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab, said, “It is the largest attack on civil society that we know of using this kind of vulnerability.”

https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/whatsapp-sues-an-israeli-tech-firm-whose-spyware-targeted-human-rights-activists-and-journalists

https://uk.finance.yahoo.com/news/whatsapp-blames-sues-mobile-spyware-192135400.html

3 Responses to “NSO accused of largest attack on civil society through its spyware”


  1. […] users, including senior government officials, journalists and human rights defenders. (see also: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/10/30/nso-accused-of-largest-attack-on-civil-society-through-&#8230😉  The allegation was made in a new court filing over the firm’s role in the long running hacking […]


  2. […] The NSO Group is currently embroiled in another lawsuit brought by WhatsApp, which alleges that Pegasus spyware was used to hack more than a thousand of the messaging platform’s users. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/10/30/nso-accused-of-largest-attack-on-civil-society-through-…%5D […]


  3. […] While AI stranded in its effort in Israel [https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2020/07/15/amnesty-internationals-bid-to-block-spyware-company-nso-fails-in-israeli-court/ ] a federal US court has passed an order allowing WhatsApp to move forward with its case against the Israeli company for allegedly targeting 1,400 users with malware in 2019. According to reports, it is believed that spyware produced by the Israeli firm NSO Group was used to target various groups of people around the world, such as journalists, human rights defenders, and even politicians. [see: https://humanrightsdefenders.blog/2019/10/30/nso-accused-of-largest-attack-on-civil-society-through-… […]


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