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WhatsApp sues Israeli cyber surveillance company NSO Group, accusing it of hacking the phones of human rights activists & journalists

A group of employees from Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group filed a lawsuit against Facebook Inc today, saying the social media giant had unfairly blocked their private accounts when it sued NSO last month, Reuters reported.

This comes a month after messaging service WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, had accused NSO in its own legal action filed in California last month of helping government spies break into the phones of roughly 1,400 users across four continents in a hacking spree whose targets included diplomats, political dissidents, journalists and senior government officials.

Following the incident, Citizen Lab volunteered to help WhatsApp identify cases where the suspected targets of this attack were members of civil society. This investigation revealed that the attack targeted at least 100 human-rights defenders, journalists and other members of civil society across the globe. 

 In the lawsuit, WhatsApp is demanding a permanent injunction blocking NSO from attempting to access its computer systems and those of its parent company, Facebook and has asked that the court rule that NSO violated US federal law and California state law against computer fraud, breached their contracts with WhatsApp and “wrongfully trespassed” on Facebook’s property. According to a WhatsApp spokesperson,"This is the first time that an encrypted messaging provider is taking legal action against a private entity that has carried out this type of attack against its users... In our complaint, we explain how NSO carried out this attack, including acknowledgement from an NSO employee that our steps to remediate the attack were effective.”

WhatsApp is also supporting calls by the UN Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression David Kaye for a moratorium on the sale and use of surveillance software until there are rules in place to stop governments from using it to spy on opponents and critics.

NSO Group strongly disputes the allegations. "The sole purpose of NSO is to provide technology to licensed government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to help them fight terrorism and serious crime. Our technology is not designed or licensed for use against human rights activists and journalists. We consider any other use of our products than to prevent serious crime and terrorism a misuse, which is contractually prohibited. We take action if we detect any misuse. This technology is rooted in the protection of human rights – including the right to life, security and bodily integrity – and that's why we have sought alignment with the U.N. Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, to make sure our products are respecting all fundamental human rights." [For previous coverage of the May 2019 attack, see here.]

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