Amnesty international billboard.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Amnesty International and 30 human rights activists filed a lawsuit with the Tel Aviv District Court on Monday asking that it compel the Defense Ministry to revoke the export license of the cyber intelligence firm NSO Group.
The firm includes a variety of former Israeli intelligence operatives, and has repeatedly found its way into the news with allegations claiming its products were used by the Saudis to track and trap murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as against Mexican and Qatari journalists.
Amnesty also claimed that there was an attempt to use NSO Group’s spying technology on one of its employees, detailing a link that was sent last summer, which could have infected the computer system.
More specifically, the link was sent from a source purporting to provide information about a protest outside the Saudi Arabian embassy in Washington. Amnesty said the message was sent at a time when Amnesty International was campaigning for the release of Saudi women human rights activists.
There have also been allegations that Black Cube, which employees a variety of ex-Israeli intelligence agents, has acted on NSO’s behalf to gain it leverage in the lawsuits filed against it.
Information provided to The Jerusalem Post regarding Black Cube has led to a variety of unresolved questions, not only regarding its conduct, but also regarding the conduct of some of its accusers.
In an interview a few months ago with Yediot Aharonot, NSO CEO Shalev Hulio unequivocally denied that Khashoggi was targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection.
Hulio also detailed recent attempted terror attacks in Europe that were intercepted because of NSO’s technology and the exposure of an Iranian-Hezbollah plot to hold Qataris for ransom.
Former Israel National Cyber Authority chief Buki Carmeli, who also consults for NSO, has told the Post that the company has been around for a while and routinely “gives technology to governments” to fight terrorist groups and drug cartels by hacking their communications.
At the same time, he has said that adversaries to Israel and to Western countries “are moving forward in the cyber area” and that private-sector allies, like NSO Group, are crucial to stay ahead of them.
The petition claims that the Defense Ministry has put human rights at risk due by allowing NSO to continue to export its spyware.
“NSO Group sells its products to governments who are known for outrageous human rights abuses, giving them the tools to track activists and critics,” said deputy director of Amnesty Tech Danna Ingleton. “The Israeli [Defense Ministry] has ignored mounting evidence linking NSO Group to attacks on human rights defenders, which is why we are supporting this case.”
According to Amnesty International, NSO repeatedly provided insufficient proof of their claims that the software they provide was not used to target human rights defenders.
NSO responded to the lawsuit, saying that it “operates according to the law and adheres to a clear ethical policy that is meant to prevent misuse of its technology.”
“NSO only licenses its technology to approved government intelligence and law enforcement agencies for the sole purpose of preventing and fighting crime and terror, according to clear definitions,” it said.
The company added that, “In an age when terrorists and criminals hide behind sophisticated technologies, our products have helped stop human traffickers and crime and terror organizations, and save the lives of thousands of people around the world.”
Despite having specifically denied involvement in the Khashoggi affair, NSO’s general policy is not to comment on specific criticisms, even if it cuts off a client’s use, as part of protecting its clientele’s anonymity.
The Defense Ministry had not yet responded by press time, but may claim national security reasons to shutdown the lawsuit or to hold hearings on the issue in closed session.