The most reliable and known messaging service WhatsApp filed suit in federal court on Tuesday against the Israeli surveillance company NSO. WhatsApp has claimed that NSO has acted illegally in helping governments hack into the mobile devices of more than 100 people worldwide, including journalists, human rights workers and women who had been the subject of online attacks.
The suit amounted to a new legal front in attempts to curb the abuses of the burgeoning but almost entirely unregulated global surveillance industry. Victims of hacking previously have sued NSO in Israeli courts, but a technology company has not before pursued such legal action for using its services to help conduct spying operations on users.
WhatsApp is claiming that NSO has helped government agencies in delivering malicious software through WhatsApp video calls. The malware was capable of intercepting communications, steal photos and other forms of data with ease. Not only that, but it can activate microphones and cameras, track the locations of targets and more.
Targets, which also included religious figures and lawyers, were identified in 20 countries, according to the WhatsApp lawsuit.
An NSO surveillance tool called Pegasus has been implicated in spying on Washington Post contributing writer Jamal Khashoggi before he was killed by people affiliated with Saudi Arabia’s security services last year. A friend of Khashoggi, Omar Abdulaziz, has alleged in a lawsuit that his phone was infected with Pegasus without his knowledge and that the malicious software helped the Saudis snoop on Khashoggi.
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Though human rights and privacy activists long have complained about the increasingly intrusive reach of such surveillance technologies, they have had little luck pursuing new laws or other remedies against makers of spying software as such tools have spread into many countries, with Israeli being a leader in the field. This has prompted government surveillance victims to seek remedies in the courts. This suit was filed in the United States District Court in the Northern District of California.
“This is unprecedented,” said John Scott-Railton, who is a senior researcher in Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto’s Munk School. He helped the messaging giant investigate the targeting of civil society groups and contacted some of the people affected. “It’s a huge milestone in digital rights and privacy.”
NSO, on the other hand, has rejected the allegations by saying that its technology is being used by governments and law enforcement to fight terrorism.
“In the strongest possible terms, we dispute today’s allegations and will vigorously fight them,” NSO said in a statement that was forwarded to The Washington Post by a Washington public relations agency.
WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, said in a blog post that the company believes NSO and its parent company, Q Cyber Technologies, violated US and California law, as well as the terms of service for WhatsApp.