A group of employees from Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group filed a lawsuit against Facebook Inc today, saying the social media giant had unfairly blocked their private accounts when it sued NSO last month, Reuters reported.
Messaging service WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, had accused NSO in its own legal action of helping government spies to break into the phones of roughly 1,400 users across four continents in a hacking spree whose targets included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials.
The NSO employees said their Facebook and Instagram accounts and also those of former workers and family members had been blocked. They petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court to order Facebook to unblock the accounts, which they claim was done abruptly and without notice.
Facebook did not immediately respond to an email from Reuters requesting comment.
In their statement, the NSO employees said Facebook had imposed a "collective punishment" by choosing to block their private accounts due to the legal process Facebook is conducting against NSO. They also said their lawsuit came only after they made repeated requests to Facebook that went unanswered.
"Blocking our private accounts is a hurtful and unjust move by Facebook," the statement said. "The idea that personal data was searched for and used is very disturbing to us"
The employees said they would continue to "help governments around the world prevent crime and terrorism through the technology we are developing".
WhatsApp accused NSO of facilitating government hacking sprees in 20 countries. Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were the only countries identified.
NSO, founded in 2009, denies the allegations.
Speaking at a technology conference in Tel Aviv yesterday, its President, Shiri Dolev, defended her company, saying NSO technologies made the world safer. Dolev also said she wished NSO could talk openly about the role it plays in helping law enforcement agencies catch terrorists.
"Terrorists and criminals use the social platforms and apps we all use every day…," she said.
Dolev added that NSO does not operate the technology nor hack phones. "We develop the technology which we sell exclusively to government intelligence agencies," she said.
Israel is known to have sold the controversial NSO Group to Saudi Arabia, which was subsequently used to spy on a number of Saudi dissidents. US whistle-blower Edward Snowden argued that this Israeli spyware played a crucial role in the kingdom's ability to track Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi – albeit through his associates – in the months leading up to his murder.
In January, NSO CEO admitted that the company's software was used to spy on the Emir of Qatar.
In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, Shalev Hulio admitted that his company's product was used to spy on Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, as well as Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.
In 2016 UAE human rights activist, Ahmed Mansoor, raised the alarm about suspicious text messages sent to his iPhone.
The activist received text messages on his iPhone on the morning of August 10 and 11, reading in Arabic: "New secrets about torture of Emiratis in state prisons." The message included a hyperlink to an unknown site.
The text messages, analysts said, were "bait to get him to click on a link, which would have led to the infection of his Apple iPhone 6 and control of the device through a spy software created by the NSO Group, a shadowy Israeli surveillance company.