Paris – The Francophone Association for Human Rights (AFDH) has been monitoring the sale of spyware by private Israeli firm, NSO Group Technologies. A number of Gulf nations including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman have reportedly signed multi-million dollar contracts with the firm to give them access to the surveillance of opposition figures and, we believe, target dissidents malignantly.
Last week, the Haaretz daily reported that the Israeli government had arbitrated the sale of spyware made by NSO Group to various Gulf nations to help them in surveillance of opposition figures. One deal was apparently signed for $250 million, no additional details were given. The report stated that NSO Group only worked with governments and official organizations, however failed to determine if that included both democratic and dictatorship governments or how the technology was used. In addition, the report added that the firm had “full control” over its software remotely and would shut it down or assess information being gathered by its clients.
The firm seemingly shut down the use of its software in Mexico after it was found to have been used against journalists, however the report said the same measures had not taken place in any of the Gulf states. Although the company has claimed that it manages its software with caution, allowing only the tracking of criminals and suspected terrorists, the report from Haaretz said that anonymous employees from the company said there were no actual examinations of the software’s use.
NSO is known to be one of the most active companies in the Gulf with its Pegasus 3 software giving full autonomy to hack mobile phones, copy information, have access to emails, messages, calls, contacts and even control users’ camera and audio recordings. Once security ‘threats’ have been identified, the spyware is able to be planted into mobile devices secretly and independently, without the user needing to click an external link. Pegasus is also designed to self-destruct should the device detect that it has entered or been installed in countries: Israel, Iran, Russia, China and the United States.
After the murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul of October 2018, the kingdom was accused of allegedly using the NSO technology to track Khashoggi. Many employees from NSO protested the use of the spyware to incite murder, with many even quitting.
Various companies and NGOs have tried bringing the Israeli spyware firm to court over the misconduct of the software’s use. Last month, a US judge authorized a lawsuit conducted by WhatsApp against NSO Group. The Israeli firm is being accused of using the messaging application for cyber-espionage on human rights activists, journalists, government officials and various other opposition figures. This ruling could force the spyware firm to disclose information on its clients and operations. NSO Group have continuously asserted that it only authorizes the use of its software to governments for combating crime and terrorism. However, activists and NGOs continue to contend the technology is being used to carry out human rights abuses.
In January of this year, Amnesty International called on an Israeli court to prevent NSO Group from selling its technology abroad, notably to authoritarian governments. The case came after Amnesty reported that one of their journalists in Morocco, Omar Radi had his phone tapped by the NSO Group’s technology in a bid by the government to crack down on dissent. The organization found that Omar Radi’s phone had been subjected to many attacks by the Pegasus spyware and had occurred over a period when Radi was being repeatedly hassled by Moroccan authorities. Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Tech, Danna Ingleton said in a report, “NSO Group clearly cannot be trusted. While it was undertaking a PR offensive to whitewash its image, its tools were enabling the unlawful surveillance of Omar Radi, an award-winning journalist and activist.”
NSO Group stands by its claim that it only sells its spyware to government intelligence after rigorous screening processes, however evidence revealed by Amnesty International suggested that the Moroccan government remained an ongoing customer of the firm and continued to use the software to track, harass and silence critics. Igleton added, “If NSO won’t stop its technology from being used in abuses, then it should be banned from selling it to governments who are likely to use it for human rights abuses.”
The Tel Aviv District Court however ruled that Amnesty lawyers did not provide enough sufficient evidence “to prove the claim that an attempt was made to track a human rights activist by trying to hack his cell phone” or that it had been infiltrated by NSO Group.
NSO Group is failing to accept its role in the many human rights violations against opposition figures and the company’s recent sale of its spyware to Gulf State members is deeply concerning. Many of these Gulf nations are notorious for their repressive governments, intolerance for the opposition and atrocious human rights records and have now had this software handed to them on a silver platter to continue their atrocities.
Although the NSO Group reportedly has a committee which determines how its customers comply with its ethical standards, the definitions for lawful surveillance differs from country to country. AFDH worries that while one country may view someone as inciting terrorism, another may see it as someone exercising their democratic right to freedom of expression. Therefore, systems must be in place to ensure that no country is violating its own national and international human rights laws.
These attacks will continue to happen as long as NSO Group sells its spyware to governments threatened by their opposition. The Israeli firm has a mammoth responsibility to ensure genuine human rights standards are being met before issuing licences. Furthermore, ongoing monitoring of clients’ operations is essential to avoid any exploitation of the technology and should any client be found guilty of such, be barred from using the software and held accountable for any crimes committed.