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Laurie Clarke

Reporter

UK government won’t use NSO Group coronavirus tracking technology

Yesterday, a flurry of publications reported that NSO Group – the Israeli company whose spyware was allegedly used by Saudi Arabia to spy on the journalist Jamal Khashoggi before he was murdered – was attempting to woo Western governments with its coronavirus tracking technology.

The company is currently in talks with the Israeli government about using its coronavirus tracking software to monitor and predict the spread of the virus, according to Israeli media. Reports from several media organisations yesterday said that the NSO Group was also “in talks” with Western governments.

These governments weren’t identified by name, with the BBC stating explicitly that NSO Group had declined to share which countries were apparently trialling the software. NSO Group didn’t respond to a request about which governments it was speaking to about its coronavirus tracking technology. 

A spokesperson for the UK government clarified to NS Tech that it was not in talks with the spyware firm regarding its coronavirus tracking technology. It’s not clear which Western governments the organisation might be in talks with, but these claims appear to have originated from the group itself, as part of an orchestrated PR campaign seemingly to both promote its coronavirus tracking technology and rehabilitate its image. 

Sky News, which published the story as an exclusive yesterday morning, was transparent about where the information had come from, reporting: “Despite normally being highly secretive – often failing to respond to requests for comment when asked about its software being used to target human rights activists – NSO Group has offered several media organisations, including Sky News, demonstrations of its new technology as part of a marketing push aimed at western governments.” 

NSO Group is currently embroiled in a number of lawsuits alleging that the company’s intrusive phone-hacking Pegasus spyware was used by governments with poor human rights records to hack journalists, lawyers and activists for nefarious purposes.

WhatsApp claims that over a thousand of its users were targeted by the group’s “zero-click” spyware technology; a Saudi dissident close to the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi filed a lawsuit claiming the company’s software helped the royal court hijack his smartphone and spy on his communications with Khashoggi; Amnesty International is supporting a legal action to take the Israeli Ministry of Defence (MoD) to court, to demand that it revokes the export license of NSO Group.

NSO Group has refuted WhatsApp’s allegations “in the strongest possible terms” and said in response to the Khashoggi case that its software is “licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime”. It also says it carries out due diligence on its client states. However, research from Citizen Lab, a body affiliated with the University of Toronto, has thrown doubt on this claim.

Between August 2016 and August 2018, the group scanned the internet for servers associated with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, discovering 1,091 IP addresses that matched NSO Group’s fingerprint and 1,014 domain names that pointed to them. They found that at least six countries with significant Pegasus operations have previously been linked to abusive use of spyware to target civil society, including in Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. 

As well as saying its software was used to fight terrorism and crime, NSO Group said at the time that its business “is conducted in strict compliance with applicable export control laws”.