Governments Accused Of Spying On Journalists And Activists With NSO Group Malware Are Now Suing Journalists And Activists

from the all-hosted-by-a-country-that-really-knows-how-to-host-a-war-or-two dept

I don't think anyone foresaw the immense amount of fallout that would result from the revelation that Israeli malware purveyor NSO Group's Pegasus software is being used to target phones belonging to journalists, activists, religious leaders, and high-ranking government officials. After all, some of this was already common knowledge, thanks to investigations by Citizen Lab and others delving into the inner workings of this powerful spyware.

The malware maker had already weathered plenty of negative press, thanks to its customers' questionable use of its products, as well as NSO Group's willingness to sell powerful exploits to enemies of Israel with long human rights abuse rap sheets.

The company is now trying to regain control of the narrative, but its statements and responses have raised more questions than they've answered. NSO claims it has nothing to do with the list of 50,000 potential target phone numbers seen by journalists (a list that contains nearly 200 journalists' phone numbers). It also says it has "no visibility" on customers' use of its malware, which undermines the strength of this denial. NSO also claims it cuts off governments who abuse the product to target journalists, religious leaders, and government officials, but [taps statement above] if NSO doesn't know what customers are doing with the malware, it seems highly unlikely the company is in any position to start cutting customers off.

It's not just NSO Group that's angry. Entire governments are now pissed off by these revelations. Not everyone is angry for the same reason, though.

In France, the revelation that President Emmanuel Macron's phone was on the list of NSO-linked numbers has resulted in Macron and 14 other French ministers acquiring new phones and numbers. The French government has also opened an investigation into the Moroccan government's use of NSO's Pegasus software, which is seemingly where the targeting of French officials originated.

Over in Morocco, the government is angry that it's been named as one of the main perpetrators of questionable targeting.

Morocco has filed defamation claims against Amnesty International and a French NGO who claim its intelligence services used the Pegasus mobile phone spyware against dozens of French journalists, lawyers for the government said Thursday.

"The Moroccan state ... wants all possible light cast on these false allegations from these two organisations, who make claims without any concrete or demonstrative evidence whatsoever," the lawyer, Olivier Baratelli, said in a statement.

Somewhat awkwardly, this defamation action is being pursued in France, where Moroccan government activities are now facing scrutiny from French investigators.

But even Moroccan government officials weren't exempt from the government's alleged spying efforts.

On Tuesday, Radio France claims the country’s monarch was on the list, as well as “a large number” of Moroccan royals.

The list is said to include the king’s wife Lalla Salma Bennani; his cousin Prince Moulay Hicham Alaoui, nicknamed the “red prince” for his progressive views; a former son-in-law of the late King Hassan II; entrepreneur Fouad Filali; and Hassan II’s former bodyguard, Mohamed Mediouri, who is the current king’s stepfather.

“But what is most surprising, when you look closely at this list, is that the sovereign himself is among those whose numbers were selected as potential Pegasus targets,” the report says.

And the government has placed journalists under surveillance in the past, undermining its new claims that it has never used the software nor purchased exploits from NSO Group.

[Amnesty International] found that [Moroccan journalist] Omar Radi’s phone was subjected to multiple attacks using a sophisticated new technique that silently installed NSO Group’s notorious Pegasus spyware. The attacks occurred over a period when Radi was being repeatedly harassed by the Moroccan authorities, with one attack taking place just days after NSO pledged to stop its products being used in human rights abuses and continued until at least January 2020.

So, there's a lot to unpack and hopefully the court will start doing that when it begins handling the Moroccan government's defamation claim. If there's any truth to the allegations, one would expect the lawsuit to be dropped if the Moroccan government is ordered to turn over information on its surveillance tech and spying activities.

Morocco isn't the only aggrieved national government, though. More litigation is in the works, courtesy of the Algerian government, which says it was falsely accused of utilizing the spyware to snoop on targets. This legal action will also be taking place in France.

Algeria said on Friday that it had filed a defamation claim against media watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) after it back-pedalled accusations that the North African country had possessed Israeli-made Pegasus spyware.

Algeria's embassy in France said the complaint related to declarations the France-based organisation published on its website on July 19.

RSF had initially identified Algeria as among the countries possessing the spyware, developed by Israeli firm NSO Group, but on Friday it issued a correction.

RSF has since apologized for the error, but that isn't stopping the Algerian government from making a whole bunch of noise about the mistake.

"As well as their defamatory and false nature, these unacceptable allegations pertain to the manipulation of RSF, which is known for its relentlessness towards Algeria," the embassy said.

That's pretty mild compared to the doth-protest-too-much blustering of Morocco's Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, who must be getting paid by the word to issue responses.

Morocco has also chosen to trust justice, at home and internationally, added Bourita, who denounced a “smokescreen”, and a “fabricated bluff (…) without any proof”, calling for “shedding light on the facts, far from controversy and slander.”

However, “this is what neither Forbidden Stories nor Amnesty International do. They base their stories solely on pure speculation”, Bourita said, noting that certain papers that are under the banner of Forbidden Stories “serve agendas that are well known for their primary hostility towards Morocco” and are ulcerated by the Kingdom’s successes under the leadership of King Mohammed VI.

This is mere hostility. This is not journalism. It is large-scale sabotage, he said.

And so it goes for several paragraphs, punctuated by the occasional even-hotter take.

“Is this a campaign? Yes! Is it denigration? Certainly! Is it orchestrated? It could not be otherwise! By whom? Time will tell,” he said.

Ah, "time will tell." Or will it? Sometimes it doesn't. Sometimes no one learns anything because the secrecy surrounding national security efforts meshes with NDAs signed by surveillance tech customers and, before anything gets really interesting, lawsuits get dropped and verbose rants are replaced with "requests for comment were not returned."

Whatever the provenance of The List, it has become a Pandora's Box for NSO Group. Never mind the fact NSO didn't actually open the box itself. It's open and NSO will have to start dealing with the mess it's created.

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Filed Under: defamation, france, malware, morocco, surveillance
Companies: nso group


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  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 28 Jul 2021 @ 12:14pm

    I'm sure the Israeli government will fix this as soon as their Ben & Jerry's task force handles the real problems.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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