Has NSO changed its approach to human rights? - analysis

Amnesty has accused NSO of potentially illegal involvement in aiding oppressive governments in tracking or harassing human rights activists and journalists, NSO has rejected all of the charges.

A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him (photo credit: KACPER PEMPEL/REUTERS)
A man holds a laptop computer as cyber code is projected on him
NSO Group and Amnesty International can agree on at least one thing: Fundamentally, NSO did not change its overall approach to respecting human rights on Tuesday when it issued a statement that it was adopting UN guidelines and bringing in three senior foreign advisers.
However, they completely disagree about what that means.
The surveillance software supplier told The Jerusalem Post that adopting the UN guidelines and bringing in the new advisers to supervise the use of its hacking and eavesdropping technologies was not an admission that it had failed to respect human rights until now.
Rather, while Amnesty and others have accused NSO of possible illegal involvement in aiding oppressive governments in tracking or harassing an estimated 24 human rights activists and journalists globally, NSO has rejected all of the charges.
NSO even told the Post that it has withdrawn access to its technology from three specific clients and that it has chosen to forgo deals worth around $250 million where it was not positive that it could trust the clients’ commitment to refrain from abusing the technology.
It also told the Post that the new move was made to keep NSO on the cutting edge of human rights compliance, not to fix any alleged past mistakes.
Moreover, NSO has given a number of examples where its technology saved lives by helping thwart terrorist plots or otherwise brought top criminal figures to justice.
Amnesty spokesman Gil Naveh told the Post that sharing this information did not meet international transparency standards.
Instead, he said that NSO needs to share names and explain what abuse occurred in order to lift the cloud over whether it is being truthful or whether it is looking the other way when human rights offending states abuse its technologies to violate human rights.
He would not say whether he believes the information about NSO having withdrawn its technology from three clients is true or not, saying that only NSO can produce sufficient information to prove its claims.
In addition, he said that a mere announcement committing to UN guidelines without actual transparency and accountability would be meaningless.
Regarding transparency, he noted that Amnesty filed a lawsuit in the Israeli court system against the Israeli Defense Ministry to revoke NSO’s export license in May, with the hope of exposing illegalities and forcing greater transparency.
Naveh told the Post that a June hearing had been postponed until November to enable the Defense Ministry to fully formulate its position on the issue.
The extensive delay by the court indicates that it is not excited to jump into the national security arena with the Defense Ministry. It also makes it likely that the case will not get far in terms of forcing greater transparency.
On NSO’s side, the three foreign advisers it has brought in – former US Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge, former French ambassador to the US Gérard Araud and former top Homeland Security official and current Harvard professor Juliette Kayyem – are all serious figures who presumably would not lend their names to NSO lightly.
It may be impossible, at this stage and without a whistle-blower, to ever get to the bottom of what NSO or its clients did or did not do in the past.
Former Israeli cyber chief Buky Carmeli, who is also on a board overseeing NSO compliance with human rights, has also told the Post that NSO and its technology would exist with or without the specific organization, and that the broader question is: Is it better that Israel – through companies like NSO – is a leader in this field so it can use the technology to fight terrorism globally, or should it cede the field “to the bad guys?”
What is clear is that since NSO changed its ownership structure, and since criticism of its activities hit a certain level, it has decided that it must work harder to fight the perception that its technology is being abused.
NSO has promised updates about its new initiatives.
Keep an eye on those updates, on the Israeli court case and on statements and activities by the three foreign advisers for determining where NSO stands on human rights going forward.