Court finally to consider Amnesty bid to revoke NSO's export license

The Israeli company’s cellphone hacking software, Pegasus, has been linked to political surveillance in Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Activists of Amnesty International demonstrate to show their support with the Syrian people at the Fontaine des Innocentes in Paris May 29, 2012. (photo credit: REUTERS)
Activists of Amnesty International demonstrate to show their support with the Syrian people at the Fontaine des Innocentes in Paris May 29, 2012.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
After extensive delays, the Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday will finally hear Amnesty International's request to order the Defense Ministry to revoke NSO Group's export license, following allegations that its Pegasus software has been used by non-democratic governments to spy on journalists and dissidents.
Amnesty filed the lawsuit in May, but the Defense Ministry has repeatedly succeeded in delaying any hearings on the issue.
Even Thursday hearing may lead to a ruling by the court that the proceedings will be heard behind closed doors, which would remove much of the scrutiny that the lawsuit could bring to the debate over NSO's role in a variety of technological tracking controversies.
In a statement, the ministry did not comment directly on whether it had sought a dismissal or gag order but said its supervision of defense exports was “subject to constant scrutiny and periodic assessments.”
The ministry added that it does not comment on specific licenses.
The Israeli company’s cellphone hacking software, Pegasus, has been linked to political surveillance in Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, according to University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which researches digital surveillance, security, privacy and accountability.
In October, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook Inc., sued NSO in the US federal court in San Francisco, accusing it of helping government spies break into the phones of about 1,400 users across four continents.
Targets of the alleged hacking spree included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials.
In a series of meetings with top NSO officials, The Jerusalem Post reported that NSO not only denies the allegations against it and presents itself as a huge helpful tool in the fight against terrorism and organized crime, but that it also has support from many EU countries.
According to NSO sources, many EU countries are unconcerned by either the Israeli lawsuit or the US Facebook lawsuit and are mostly just concerned that they continue to have NSO's services to fight terrorism.
In addition, NSO sources implied that the highest levels in Israel view its company as a form of diplomacy since it can provide services to Middle Eastern countries for fighting terror which then brings those countries closer to Israel.
Finally, NSO committed last year to UN guidelines related to observing human rights.  
Amnesty says that the UN guidelines are a fig leaf and that nothing has changed. It says that until NSO reveals more about abuses from its clients, which NSO admits occurred in at least three cases, it cannot be trusted.
In Amnesty’s case, brought by members and supporters of its Israel office, the organization said NSO continues to profit from its spyware being used to commit abuses against activists across the world and the Israeli government has “stood by and watched it happen.”
“The best way to stop NSO’s powerful spyware products reaching repressive governments is to revoke the company’s export license, and that is exactly what this legal case seeks to do,” said Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech.
Amnesty Tech is described on Amnesty International’s website as a global collective of advocates, hackers, researchers and technologies challenging “the systematic threat to our rights” by surveillance-based businesses.
Ingleton called for the hearings in Tel Aviv to be conducted in open court, saying the Defense Ministry “must not be allowed to hide behind a veil of secrecy when it comes to human rights abuses”.
The ministry in a statement said its licensing assessments took into account various considerations such as “the security clearance of the product and assessment of the country toward which the product will be marketed.”
“The issue of protecting human rights is a major factor in the process, as are policy and security considerations,” it added in the statement on Tuesday.
Reuters contributed to this report.


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