NSO Group points finger at state clients in WhatsApp spying case

In court filing, Israeli spyware company says it does not operate technology it provides

An Israeli spyware company that has been accused by WhatsApp of hacking 1,400 of its users, including journalists, human rights activists, and diplomatic officials, has blamed its government clients for the alleged abuses, according to court documents.

NSO Group – whose technology is reported to have been used against dozens of targets including Pakistani intelligence officials, Indian journalists and exiled Rwandan political activists – also claimed in legal documents that the lawsuit brought against the company by WhatsApp threatened to infringe on its clients’ “national security and foreign policy concerns”.

NSO Group has never disclosed a full list of its government clients, but research by Citizen Lab, which tracks the use of spyware, has claimed that current and former clients include Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Morocco, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates.

WhatsApp, the popular messaging app, filed a lawsuit against NSO Group in October, alleging that the cyberweapons company was behind a series of highly sophisticated attacks that it claimed violated US law in an “unmistakeable pattern of abuse”.

Among the alleged victims of the hack, which was discovered last April and continued for two weeks until the app’s vulnerability was fixed, were 100 human rights activists, lawyers, journalists and academics who were later notified of the alleged intrusion by WhatsApp.

In its first substantive legal filing in the case, filed last week, NSO hit back at WhatsApp and its parent company, Facebook, which it said were seen by governments as “safe spaces for terrorists and other criminals” who – without NSO’s services – could operate “without fear of detection by law enforcement”.

NSO Group also argued that WhatsApp had “conflated” NSO Group’s actions with the actions of NSO’s “sovereign customers”. While NSO Group licenses its signature spying technology, Pegasus, to government law enforcement and intelligence agencies and assists with “training, setup, and installation”, it said it did not operate the technology.

“Government customers do that, making all decisions about how to use the technology,” NSO said in its legal filing. “If anyone installed Pegasus on any alleged “target devices” it was not [the] defendants [NSO Group]. It would have been an agency of a sovereign government.”

NSO Group claimed that to challenge such conduct, WhatsApp would have to declare the “sovereign acts” of those governments to be illegal.

“For that reason,” the company said in the filing, “permitting this litigation to proceed would infringe critical national security and foreign policy concerns of sovereign governments”.

The company also highlighted the role it claimed the Israeli government played in its review of NSO Group’s business. The Israeli ministry of defence, NSO Group said, could have access to information about NSO Group’s customers and “their intended use of Pegasus technology”.

In a statement, WhatsApp said NSO Group was attempting to “avoid responsibility” and questioned the accuracy of some of the company’s claims, including an allegation in the legal filing that Facebook had wanted to procure some of NSO Group’s technology in 2017.

In a sworn statement filed to the court, Shalev Hulio, an NSO Group co-founder, said that NSO had been approached by two Facebook representatives in October 2017 and asked about the right to “certain capabilities of Pegasus”, which the representatives had suggested could be used to help monitor users on Apple devices.

NSO Group declined to comment to the Guardian’s questions about the alleged meeting between Facebook and NSO, and said it would not reveal the identity of the individuals. WhatsApp said the description of the discussions were an “inaccurate representation”. It declined to provide further comment.


Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Israeli spyware firm NSO Group faces renewed US scrutiny
Department of Justice said to have asked WhatsApp for details of alleged targeting of clients in 2019

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington DC

01, Mar, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
NSO Group spyware 'dangerous', say tech firms in legal filing
Israeli company should be held liable to American anti-hacking laws, Google, Microsoft and others argue

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

22, Dec, 2020 @4:25 PM

Article image
Questions over Israel's role in WhatsApp case against spyware firm
WhatsApp alleges NSO Group hacked 1,400 users, including diplomats and activists

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington and Oliver Holmes in Jerusalem

10, Mar, 2020 @7:51 PM

Article image
WhatsApp: Israeli firm 'deeply involved' in hacking our users
NSO Group allegedly connected to hacks of 1,400 people including human rights activists

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

29, Apr, 2020 @5:00 AM

Article image
Legal woes mount for NSO after court rules WhatsApp lawsuit can proceed
US appeals court rejects Israeli company’s claim of sovereign immunity as WhatsApp alleges spyware used to hack 1,400 users

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

08, Nov, 2021 @9:50 PM

Article image
Israeli spyware used to target Moroccan journalist, Amnesty claims
Amnesty alleges phone of Omar Radi in Morocco was infected by NSO’s Pegasus software

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

21, Jun, 2020 @10:00 PM

Article image
WhatsApp spyware: UK firm promises new 'respect for human rights' following allegations
Novalpina Capital to establish new rules at NSO Group following multiple allegations that technology was used to spy on dissidents and the media

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington and Jon Swaine in New York

18, Jun, 2019 @5:49 PM

Article image
Israeli spyware firm fails to get hacking case dismissed
Judge orders NSO Group to fight case brought by Saudi activist and pay his legal costs

Oliver Holmes and Stephanie Kirchgaessner

16, Jan, 2020 @10:27 AM

Article image
Rights groups urge EU to ban NSO over clients’ use of Pegasus spyware
Letter signed by 86 organisations asks for sanctions against Israeli firm, alleging governments used its software to abuse rights

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

03, Dec, 2021 @5:00 AM

Article image
Microsoft seeks Biden's support in case against Israeli spyware firm
Microsoft’s president says NSO Group enables more nation-states to deploy cyber-attacks, including against journalists and activists

Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

18, Dec, 2020 @7:44 PM