Israeli Court Rules NSO Group Can Continue Exporting Spyware

NSO Group will be allowed to keep exporting its powerful hacking and surveillance tech after what Amnesty Internatioal calls a “disgraceful ruling.”
July 13, 2020, 3:14pm
Nso Group Building
IMAGE: JACK GUEZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

The infamous spyware company NSO Group scored a major win in what critics are calling a “disgraceful ruling” in an Israeli court on Monday.

The court ruled that NSO can keep exporting its hacking and surveillance tools, arguing that the human rights organization Amnesty International, which had sued the company in an attempt to block its exports, failed to prove that an NSO customer used its technology to spy on Amnesty staff.

In 2018, as Motherboard reported at the time, Amnesty claimed to have found hackers spying on one of the organization’s researchers using NSO spyware. After the incident, the organization sued NSO in Israel in an attempt to block the export of its surveillance technology. A Tel Aviv District Court judge dismissed the suit alleging Amnesty did not present enough evidence, and said Israel’s Defence Ministry, which is tasked with overseeing the export of surveillance technologies, has the right safeguards in place to protect human rights.

Do you work at NSO Group, did you used to, or do you know anything else about the company? We'd love to hear from you. Using a non-work phone or computer, you can contact Lorenzo Franceschi-Bicchierai securely on Signal at +1 917 257 1382, OTR chat at lorenzofb@jabber.ccc.de, or email lorenzofb@vice.com

Amnesty harshly criticized the ruling.

“Today’s disgraceful ruling is a cruel blow to people put at risk around the world by NSO Group selling its products to notorious human rights abusers. At a moment when NSO and the Israeli MOD [Ministry of Defense] should be held accountable for their practices, it is appalling that the court has failed to do so,” Danna Ingleton, the acting co-Director of Amnesty Tech, said in a statement sent by the human rights organizations to reporters. “NSO Group continues to profit from human rights abuses with impunity. The ruling of the court 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. We will continue to do all we can to stop NSO Group’s spyware being used to commit human rights abuses.”

NSO celebrated the victory.

“The judgement is irrefutable evidence that the regulatory framework in which we operate in is of the highest international standard. Combined with NSO’s industry-leading governance frameworks, it underpins the fact that we are a global leader in commitment to the proper use of technology and respect for human rights," the company said in a statement sent via email. "Advanced encryption by terrorists and criminals necessitates the kind of legal and proportionate response that NSO provides to authorised and verified government agencies.“

Over the last few years, organizations such as Amnesty and Citizen Lab, a research group out of the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto, have documented a long series of cases where governments have used NSO spyware to keep tabs on human rights activists, journalists, and dissidents. Most recently, Amnesty found that an NSO customer—likely the Moroccan government—used the company’s spyware to hack the phone of a human rights defender, just days after NSO announced a new human rights policy.

This story was updated to include NSO's statement.

Subscribe to our new cybersecurity podcast, CYBER.