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Notorious Israel spyware under renewed US investigation

An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, on 28 August 2016, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images]
Building housing the Israeli NSO group, on 28 August 2016, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv [JACK GUEZ/AFP/Getty Images]

The notorious Israeli NSO Group, whose invasive Pegasus spyware is alleged to have been used to target human rights defenders and journalists around the world, is under renewed investigation by the US.

American attention over the spyware's use was raised two months ago when the Israeli firm was labelled "powerful and dangerous" in a joint legal filing. Calls were made for the company to be held liable to US anti-hacking laws.

Concerns over the NSO Group were such that the FBI launched an investigation in early 2020 only for it to be stalled. But the US Department of Justice (DoJ) is said to be showing renewed interest in the case.

DoJ lawyers recently approached the messaging app WhatsApp with technical questions about the alleged targeting of 1,400 of its users by NSO Group's government clients in 2019, reported the Guardian citing a person with knowledge of the matter.

It is not clear, however, which suspected hacking targets DoJ investigators are examining or what phase the investigation is in. The Jerusalem Post suggested that the renewed efforts could be part of the Biden administration's agenda to increase its emphasis on human rights and crackdown on the Saudis.

Read: UAE, Saudi used Israel spyware to hack Al Jazeera journalists' phones, report reveals

The renewed interest comes after Microsoft President Brad Smith denounced technology companies like NSO, calling them "21st century mercenaries". In a memo, he urged the Biden administration to intervene.

"NSO represents the increasing confluence between sophisticated private-sector technology and nation-state attackers," Smith wrote in December.

The Israeli based NSO group has gained notoriety for a tool called Pegasus. Human rights groups have warned that Pegasus was being used to target rights activists, journalists and government officials in such diverse locations as Mexico, Morocco and India. Last month an Al Jazeera documentary revealed that the Israeli firm was secretly selling its spyware to Bangladesh through a criminal gang.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman is one of a number of authoritarian rulers that are said to have employed the Pegasus spyware to go after political opponents and critics. Last week the Biden administration released the long-awaited report which held the crown prince responsible for the grisly 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

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