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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

Amnesty decries Israeli court approval of NSO Group’s export licence

Amnesty International’s bid to block spyware company NSO Group’s international export licence has been shut down in a Tel Aviv court, apparently due to a lack of evidence.

The case argued that the Israeli defence ministry should revoke the group’s export licence in light of numerous allegations that its phone-hacking Pegasus spyware has been used by governments (including Mexico, Saudi Arabia, Morocco and the UAE) to spy on civilians including an Amnesty International employee, human rights activists, lawyers and journalists.

NSO Group maintains that it only sells spyware to governments approved by Israel for the purpose of fighting terrorism and crime.

The district court judge Rachel Barkai wrote in a statement that there was not enough evidence to “substantiate the claim that an attempt was made to monitor a human rights activist”. She wrote that in reviewing materials provided by the Ministry of Defence and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, she was persuaded that export licences were granted as part of a “sensitive and rigorous process”, and closely monitored and revoked if conditions were violated, “in particular in cases of human rights violations.”

Amnesty International decried the court’s decision. Danna Ingleton, acting co-director of Amnesty Tech, said in a statement: “Today’s disgraceful ruling is a cruel blow to people put at risk around the world by NSO Group selling its products to notorious human rights abusers. […] The ruling of the court flies in the face of the mountains of evidence of NSO Group’s spyware being used to target human rights defenders from Saudi Arabia to Mexico, including the basis of this case – the targeting of one of our own Amnesty employees.

“Until there is transparency around NSO’s business practices and guarantees that the Israeli MoD process of granting export licences is set according to international standards and practices, the company’s products will continue to aid in the persecution of activists and the repression of human rights.”

NSO Group said in a statement that it “welcomes the court’s rejection of Amnesty International’s petition and the finding that their allegations did not have an evidentiary basis. The judgement is irrefutable evidence that the regulatory framework in which we operate in is of the highest international standard.

“Our detractors, who have made baseless accusations to fit their own agendas, have no answer to the security challenges of the 21st century. Now that the court’s decision has shown that our industry is sufficiently regulated, the focus should turn to what answer those who seek to criticise NSO have to the abuse of encryption by nefarious groups.”

Gil Naveh, spokesman for Amnesty International Israel told Al Jazeera that the group was not surprised with the outcome. “It’s been a long-standing tradition for the Israeli courts to be a rubber stamp for the Israeli Ministry of Defense,” he said. Because the hearings were allowed to be closed, Amnesty doesn’t know what evidence was provided to the court by either NSO Group or the Defence Ministry.

Last month, Amnesty International claimed that Pegasus spyware was used by Morocco’s government to spy on Moroccan journalist Omar Radi.

NSO Group is currently embroiled in another lawsuit brought by WhatsApp, which alleges that Pegasus spyware was used to hack more than a thousand of the messaging platform’s users.

WhatsApp’s spyware lawsuit against NSO Group could change cyber espionage laws forever