In May 2019, Amnesty International and New York University (NYU) had sued the Israeli Ministry of Defence (MOD) to get NSO Group’s export licence revoked. Israel’s security cabinet minister Zeev Elkin today denied any Israeli government involvement in sale of Pegasus by NSO Group, stating that “NSO Group is a private player” and “there is no Israeli government involvement”, according to a Reuters report. MediaNama has reached out to Amnesty International for comment.

On October 29, WhatsApp sued the NSO Group for exploiting a since-then fixed vulnerability for targeting 1,400 people, about 100 of whom were human rights defenders, journalists, political dissenters, and lawyers in at least 20 countries. About two dozen of these are activists and journalists from India. 

Amnesty’s affidavit for the lawsuit said that NSO Group had attempted to infect the mobile of an Amnesty employee with Pegasus in June 2018, a claim that Citizen Lab’s research also supports. Citizen Lab is a University of Toronto-based research organisation that helped WhatsApp trace human rights activists, journalists, political dissenters and lawyers that had been targeted by Pegasus using the WhatsApp vulnerability.

According to affidavit, that attempt caused a “chilling effect” on the individual staffer and across Amnesty International’s operations.

“Allowing NSO Group to continue selling the Pegasus spyware platform threatens the rights to privacy and to freedom of opinion and expression, in reach of Israel’s obligations under international human rights law”. — Amnesty International

The lawsuit was filed on May 14 in the District Court of Tel Aviv, and was accompanied by Amnesty’s affidavit signed by Danna Ingleton, the Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech. The case will be heard on November 7.

Pegasus has also been used to target journalists and human rights activists in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the UAE. While there is lack of clarity on whether slain Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s phone had been infected with Pegasus, Citizen Lab has established that a close confidant of Khashoggi — Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist and Canadian permanent resident — was targeted back in 2018. Amnesty’s affidavit also mentions that.

Read more: All you need to know about NSO Group and its Pegasus spyware

Does the Israeli government oversee sale of Pegasus?

In his radio interview, Elkin said, “NSO is a private player using capabilities that Israelis have, thousands of people are in the cyber field, but there is no Israeli government involvement here, everyone understands that, this is not about the state of Israel.”

This is an interesting denial because according to December 2018 Washington Post report, an NSO spokesperson had said, “We follow an extremely rigorous protocol for licensing our products — which are only provided after a full vetting as well as licensing by the Israeli government.” The same report noted that while some Israelis had concerns about sharing a system such as Pegasus with Saudi Arabia, a leading Arab nation, two former US officials allegedly said that the Saudi purchase was approved by the Israeli government.

As per Amnesty’s affidavit, Pegasus’s sale is regulated by Israel’s Defence Export Controls Agency (DECA), part of the Israeli MOD, “under the same type of licensing requirements and export restrictions applicable to military weapons and national security systems”.

Amnesty’s affidavit raises questions about NSO Group’s internal procedures and about Israeli MOD oversight that perhaps does not address human rights risks.

“In particular, it is difficult to assess whether any human rights screening or risk assessment was performed [by DECA] ahead of granting NSO Group the license that has allowed it to sell its surveillance technology to foreign governments.” — Amnesty International

Other lawsuits against NSO Group

  • In December 2018, Khashoggi’s friend, Omar Abdulaziz, sued NSO Group, alleging that the Saudi government accessed his conversations with Khashoggi using Pegasus, the Washington Post had reported. Knowledge of these conversations, Abdulaziz said, contributed to Khashoggi’s brutal murder in October 2018.
  • In 2017, Itay Mack, an Israeli human rights lawyer, filed a court petition to halt NSO’s use of its technology in Mexico after reports, including Citizen Lab’s, emerged that Pegasus was being used to target human rights activists, lawyers and journalists, the Times of Israel reported. The court ruling is under a gag order.