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NSO Group lawsuit (re hacking WhatsApp users)

In 2019, WhatsApp filed suit in California state court against NSO Group, an Israeli-based spyware firm, alleging illegal hacking. They request an injunction to block NSO Group from attempting to access its computer system, as well as damages for violating Computer Fraud and Abuse legislation. The case is ongoing. 


Factual Background

On 29 October 2019, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, released a statement alleging spyware, known as Pegasus produced by the Israeli company NSO Group was used to hack the phone systems of 1,400 users between April 2019 and May 2019 in 20 different countries. Of the 1,400 users at least 100 were human rights defenders, journalists, and other members of civil society across the globe.   

Legal Argument

WhatsApp is demanding a permanent injunction blocking NSO from attempting to access its computer system and those of its parent company, Facebook. Additionally, they have asked that the court rule that NSO’s alleged hacking of user’s data violated the federal Computer Fraud and Abuse Act as well as the  California Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act, breached their contracts with WhatsApp and “wrongfully trespassed” on Facebook’s property.  

NSO Group disputes these allegations. They argue the sole purpose of NSO is to provide governments and law enforcement agencies with technologies to help them fight terrorism and serious crimes. 

Legal Proceedings

On 29 October 2019 WhatsApp filed suit against NSO Group in California court in the US.

On 2 March 2020, NSO Group failed to appear in the California court, resulting in a notice of default entered. NSO responded that WhatsApp had prematurely moved for a default judgment before properly serving NSO with the lawsuit, allegedly violating international laws regarding service of process. Service of process is a legal term referring to the acceptable possible avenues with which plaintiffs can notify defendants a lawsuit has been filed against them and allow them ample opportunity to respond. WhatsApp argued they made several good faith attempts to serve the company.   

On 6 March 2020, defendants filed an application with the California state court to set aside the default judgment and raised the issue of incomplete service under the Hague Convention, which details acceptable service of process for international disputes. Additionally, defendants request sanctions be entered against the Plaintiffs for falsely representing to the Court that they had properly served defendants under the Hague Convention. Additionally, defendants argue that plaintiffs had a duty to correct the false statements.

On 13 April 2020, the Court ruled WhatsApp had not intentionally made false statements to the court and given the short time frame, did not usurp their duty to correct the statements to the court.


Lawsuit filed by NSO Group Employees against Facebook in Israel

On 26 November 2019, employees from NSO Group filed a separate lawsuit in Israel against Facebook Inc (which owns WhatsApp), alleging the social media giant had blocked their private accounts when it sued NSO in October 2019. They petitioned the Tel Aviv district court to order Facebook to unblock the accounts. Facebook responded that they had disabled relevant accounts after the cyber-attack and that the restrictions continue to be necessary for security reasons. 


Latest Legal News 

In July 2020, a US district court judge in California ruled that Whatsapp's lawsuit could proceed. In its ruling, the judge explained not being convinced by NSO's argument that it had no role in the targeting of WhatsApp's users and only followed the directions of its customers. This decision means that the case can proceed to discovery, where both parties can request documents and records from each others' practices.



News Items

US judge: Whatsapp lawsuit against Isreali spyware firm NSO can proceed, The Guardian, 17 Jul 2020

In Court, NSO Group accuses Facebook of lying, disregarding international law, The Times of Israel, 12 Mar 2020

The Israeli spyware firm accused of hacking WhatsApp is now claiming Facebook disregarded international law as the legal battle between the 2 companies heats up, Business Insider, 10 Mar 2020

Will WhatsApp win its lawsuit against NSO?, Al Jazeera, 5 Mar 2020

WhatsApp takes step toward winning spyware lawsuit after Israeli company no-show, Reuters, 4 Mar 2020

NSO Group points finger at state clients in WhatsApp spying case, The Guardian, 7 Apr 2020

Works at Israeli surveillance firm NSO sue Facebook for blocking private accounts, Reuters, 26 Nov 2019

How NSO Group helps countries hack targets, Vice, 31 Oct 2019

WhatsApp sues Israeli firm, accusing it of hacking activists’ phones,The Guardian, 29 Oct 2019

NSO Group/Q Cyber Lab Technologies, Citizen Lab, 29 Oct 2019


Court Documents

 Complaint for WhatsApp Inc. v. NSO Group Technologies Limited, U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, 29 Oct 2019

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