Following publication of a report claiming to prove that Herzliya-based NSO Group Technologies’ Pegasus hacking spyware is being used to violate human rights, human-rights groups and technology leaders have called on the company to halt operations.
The Pegasus Project, a collaboration of more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations in 10 countries set on exposing human-rights violations committed using the spyware, on Sunday said it had a list of 50,000 phone numbers belonging to journalists, human-rights activists and others who were potentially under surveillance by governments and other organizations using the Pegasus software.
NSO’s software can install itself on a phone without a user’s knowledge and provide attackers access to all activities and files on the device.
Among other things, Pegasus has been accused of playing a role in the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi government in 2018. Amnesty said it found evidence that the spyware was installed on the phone of Khashoggi’s fiancée within days of the killing.
NSO denied the report’s claims, saying it “is full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources.”
For years, the company has responded to accusations that it works with governments that abuse human rights by saying it only sells its services to carefully vetted organizations for the purpose of saving lives. Its sales are subject to the approval of Israel’s Defense Ministry, whose process for vetting NSO clients was sufficient, the Tel Aviv District Court said last year.
However, this week’s revelations turned up the heat on the spyware company, with many of the field’s top thought leaders expressing outrage and calling for action.
“NSO’s dangerous spyware is used to commit horrible human rights abuses all around the world and it must be stopped,” WhatsApp CEO Will Cathcart tweeted.
“The mobile phone is the primary computer for billions of people,” he wrote. “Governments and companies must do everything they can to make it as secure as possible. Our security and freedom depend on it.”
WhatsApp, through its parent company, Facebook, is currently suing NSO for exploiting a flaw in WhatsApp messaging service to hack 1,400 users last year.
“The surveillance industry must no longer be afforded a laissez-faire approach from governments with a vested interest in using this technology to commit human rights violations,” Amnesty International wrote. “Our hope is the damning evidence published over the next week will lead governments to overhaul a surveillance industry that is out of control.”
Edward Snowden, the whistle-blower who exposed secretive US surveillance actions in 2013, on Sunday tweeted: NSO “should bear direct, criminal liability for the deaths and detentions of those targeted by the digital infection vectors it sells, which have no legitimate use.”
In Israel, Mickey Gitzin, who heads the local office of the New Israel Fund, said the NSO saga “is the tip of the iceberg regarding the use of Israeli technologies for the benefit of such acts. Many of the technologies need the approval of the Defense Ministry, and the level of regulation on the field in Israel is almost zero.”