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14 Apr 2021

Maria Dinzeo, Courthouse News Service (USA)

USA: NSO Group tries to convince judge to grant company immunity in lawsuit over alleged hacking of WhatsApp users

"Israeli Spyware Company Begs Ninth Circuit for Immunity From WhatsApp Suit", 12 Apr 2021

Three Ninth Circuit judges signaled Monday that they are unlikely to upend centuries of legal precedent by granting sovereign immunity to an Israeli software firm whose cybersurveillance tool was used by foreign governments to spy on some 1,400 journalists and activists...

In October 2019, WhatsApp and its owner Facebook sued NSO, claiming it infiltrated the messaging platform to spy on devices used by lawyers, human rights activists, journalists and diplomats. WhatsApp claims NSO accomplished this by using WhatsApp’s servers to initiate calls that could infect devices with malware once the call was complete — even if the intended target never picked up the phone.

In July 2020, U.S. District Judge Phyllis Hamilton refused to dismiss WhatsApp’s case, finding NSO is not protected by sovereign immunity as a private company even if it acts as an agent of its foreign sovereign customers.

At oral argument Monday, NSO attorney Jeffrey Bucholtz had a hard time convincing U.S. Circuit Judges Mary Murguia, a Barack Obama appointee and Donald Trump appointees Ryan Nelson Dani Hunsaker to overturn Hamilton’s ruling...

Recent years have seen a flurry of litigation against the cyberarms firm including by Amnesty International and a Saudi dissident who claims a Pegasus hack of his phone led to the killing of his friend, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi...

A host of tech companies and advocacy groups [Microsoft, Cisco, LinkedIn, and GitHub] filed amicus briefs in the WhatsApp case, cautioning that cybersurveillance tools like Pegasus “dramatically increase systemic cybersecurity risk” and pose a danger to human rights advocates...