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Israeli Spyware Firm NSO Group Harasses Cybersecurity Researchers in Court

Israeli spyware firm NSO Group, known for its product Pegasus, has been under scrutiny by cybersecurity researchers at Citizen Lab for years. In 2019, Citizen Lab discovered that Pegasus was being used to target journalists and human rights defenders through a WhatsApp security vulnerability. Now, NSO is attempting to use a lawsuit over the WhatsApp exploit to gain insight into Citizen Lab’s investigative methods.

The lawsuit, filed in 2019 by WhatsApp and Meta (formerly Facebook), alleges that NSO sent Pegasus and other malware to around 1,400 devices worldwide. Despite multiple attempts by NSO to have the case dismissed, the lawsuit is now moving forward. In a new approach, NSO is demanding that Citizen Lab hand over all documents related to its Pegasus investigation. However, a judge recently denied NSO’s request for access to Citizen Lab’s materials.

Citizen Lab’s lawyers argued that providing its raw work to NSO would put individuals who have already been victimized by NSO’s activities at risk of further harassment, including from their own governments. They also stated that it would hinder their future work. NSO declined to comment on the lawsuit.

In recent years, NSO has made efforts to improve its image, particularly since being blacklisted in 2021. Following the October 7 Hamas attacks, the company requested a meeting with the State Department to discuss Pegasus as a tool in the fight against terrorism.

NSO is facing other lawsuits in U.S. courts related to Pegasus, including cases brought by Salvadoran journalists, Apple, and Hanan Elatr Khashoggi, the widow of murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. These lawsuits also rely on Citizen Lab’s research to varying degrees.

So far, the WhatsApp lawsuit has not been favorable for NSO. The company initially argued that it was immune from being sued in American courts, but this was rejected by a federal appeals court in 2021. NSO also tried to have the lawsuit filed in Israel instead of the U.S., but this argument was rejected by Judge Phyllis Hamilton. In a significant blow to NSO, Hamilton ordered the company to disclose its software code for Pegasus and any other NSO spyware targeting or using WhatsApp.

During the discovery process, NSO has already obtained thousands of documents from Meta and WhatsApp regarding Citizen Lab’s investigation. However, NSO has been unsuccessful in its attempts to obtain more information directly from Citizen Lab. The company’s demands were deemed overbroad by the court, and NSO will only have another chance if it can provide evidence that specific individuals categorized as “civil society” targets were involved in criminal or terrorist activity.

Citizen Lab celebrated the court’s recognition that NSO’s request for information was unnecessary and overbroad. Ronald Deibert, the director of Citizen Lab, expressed his satisfaction with the court’s decision.

In conclusion, NSO Group’s attempts to gain access to Citizen Lab’s investigative materials have been repeatedly denied by the court. The ongoing lawsuit against NSO over the WhatsApp exploit is progressing, and NSO has faced setbacks in its defense. Citizen Lab continues to fight against NSO’s demands, prioritizing the safety and privacy of individuals affected by NSO’s activities.

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