NSO Group under renewed investigation by US - report

Probe may be part of larger Biden shift emphasizing human rights, scrutinizing Saudi Arabia.

A man uses a smartphone in New York City, in this picture taken November 6, 2013 (photo credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)
A man uses a smartphone in New York City, in this picture taken November 6, 2013
(photo credit: MIKE SEGAR / REUTERS)
The US Department of Justice is reportedly showing renewed interest in an Israeli cyber company previously tied to the surveilling of journalists and rights activists around the world.
Israeli spyware company NSO Group is facing a lawsuit in the US filed by the messaging platform WhatsApp. The renewed efforts could be part of the Biden administration agenda to increase its emphasis on human rights and crack down on the Saudis, experts say.
The Guardian reported on Monday that the Justice Department appeared to be reviving its examination of NSO Group. The report said that Justice Department lawyers had recently contacted WhatsApp for information regarding NSO Group's alleged 2019 targeting of 1,400 users of the messaging app, which is at the heart of a lawsuit filed by WhatsApp against the Israeli company.
The report in the Guardian comes after Microsoft President Brad Smith came out against technology companies like NSO, calling them "21st century mercenaries" and urging the Biden administration to intervene. 
"NSO represents the increasing confluence between sophisticated private-sector technology and nation-state attackers," Smith wrote in a memo in December. 
NSO Group is based in Herzliya and is most famous for a tool called Pegasus, which reportedly has been used to target rights activists, journalists and government officials in such diverse locations as Mexico, Morocco and India. Pegasus, a smartphone spyware, is said to allow activities such as spying on phone calls and messages, as well as enabling the phone's microphone and camera. While the company repeatedly has been criticized for its use against government critics around the world, it insists that the tool is sold for the sole purpose of fighting crime and terrorism.
Prof. Orr Dunkelman of Haifa University's computer science department is a director of The Center for Cyber Law and Policy. He said that the special interest in this company, just one of Israel's rich selection of cybersecurity firms, is because its tools are used for "offensive cyber."
"Offensive cyber is, in many ways, a weapon," Dunkelman told The Media Line. While Israel has a number of offensive cyber companies, "NSO have simply been caught a few times’ in the surveilling of activists and journalists, “at least according to groups that specialize in this area such as The Citizen Lab,” he said.
Prof. Eytan Gilboa, an expert in US-Israel relations and American policy in the Middle East at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies, explains that the renewed interest in the company under the Biden administration could be a result of its increased attention to human rights issues.
"This administration is sensitive to human rights," Gilboa told The Media Line. Specifically, "any use of a cyber tool whose aim is to harm human rights is of special interest to them," he said.
The Democratic administration developed a heightened sensitivity to cyber violations in response to the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US elections, the professor explained.
Gilboa sees the reports of a revival of the investigation as connected to a different policy toward Saudi Arabia, as well as a larger shift in American policy in the Middle East in general. While the Trump administration was a close ally to the Saudis, the present administration repeatedly has expressed its reservations regarding the Saudi regime. At the same time, the US has expressed its readiness to return to the Iran nuclear deal, after former President Donald Trump decided to step away from the agreement.
Importantly, the Saudis reportedly used NSO spyware to watch Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, whose 2018 assassination in Istanbul by Saudi operatives has been revived by the current administration, and is significantly straining Saudi-US relations.
Prof. Dov Waxman, the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies at UCLA, where he directs the Younes & Soraya Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, goes a step further in disconnecting the investigation from outside factors. “I don’t think the DoJ is a kind of arm of American foreign policy,” he told The Media Line.
However, if there is a tighter connection to the present administration’s policy, Waxman points to its emphasis on human rights as central to foreign policy. Additionally, Google, Microsoft and their fellow tech industry leaders recently voiced their concerns regarding NSO, according to a report in the Guardian.
“The Biden administration definitely has a better relationship with those tech giants than did the Trump Administration,” the UCLA professor said, “so it’s more receptive to their concerns.”
Waxman refers also to a recent court win for NSO in Israel, which may have contributed to the renewed interest in the company. Amnesty International had petitioned the Israeli court to revoke NSO’s export license, but the petition was rejected in July 2020.
NSO’s Pegasus is classified as a weapon by Israel, and therefore requires an export license from Israel’s Defense Ministry. The judge that rejected the petition said she was convinced that the licensing procedure is “a strict and sensitive procedure during which export requests receive deep consideration,” and that there is continued supervision that can lead to a suspension of the license in cases of human rights abuse, according to the Israeli business daily Globes.
NSO Group declined to comment for this report.