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Israel court refuses to stop spyware exports to ‘rights abusers’

July 14, 2020 at 4:20 pm

Building housing the Israeli NSO group, on 28 August 2016, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images]

A legal case filed by Amnesty International that requested Israeli spyware firm NSO Group be banned from exporting its cyberweapons internationally was rejected by an Israeli court.

Amnesty’s lawyers alleged the software had been used by repressive governments to target activists, including one of the rights group’s own researchers, as well as journalists and dissidents worldwide.

The rights group attempted to encourage the Israeli Defence Ministry to strip the NSO Group of its export licence as a result of the use of its phone-hacking software, Pegasus, which has been linked to the surveillance of political opponents.

Pegasus has been linked to political surveillance in Mexico, the UAE and Saudi Arabia, according to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which researches digital surveillance. NSO denies wrongdoing and says it sells only to government agencies, subject to oversight by Israel’s Defence Ministry.

READ: Britain’s sale of spyware to Gulf autocrats raises concern

However, US whistle-blower Edward Snowden said that if the NSO Group had refused to sell its technology to Saudi Arabia, Saudi columnist Jamal Khashoggi would still be alive. Software created by the spyware firm was used to hack the phone of a member of Khashoggi’s inner circle which allowed Saudi security officials to track him.

Amnesty International decried the court’s decision, while Amnesty Israel, the local branch of the organisation, described the verdict as “shameful”.

Danna Ingleton, the acting co-director of Amnesty Tech, said the ruling was “a cruel blow to people put at risk around the world by NSO Group selling its products to notorious human rights abusers”.

She said the decision “flies in the face of the mountains of evidence of NSO Group’s spyware being used to target human rights defenders from Saudi Arabia to Mexico, including the basis of this case – the targeting of one of our own Amnesty employees.”

However, the NSO Group maintains that it only sells spyware to governments approved by Israel for the purpose of fighting terrorism and crime.

The district court judge Rachel Barkai wrote in a statement that there was not enough evidence to “substantiate the claim that an attempt was made to monitor a human rights activist”.

NSO Group said in a statement that the company “will continue to work to provide technology to states and intelligence organizations, and that its purpose is to save human lives.”

READ: Israeli spy firm uses coronavirus cover to impose global mass surveillance