In a high-stakes surveillance legal battle, a California court has ruled against Israeli cyber firm NSO Group on Thursday. NSO had tried to stop a lawsuit filed by WhatsApp against it from proceeding to trial.
The court’s decision, which sets the ground for a trial of WhatsApp’s lawsuit against NSO, is significant because a discovery phase in the trial could potentially reveal crucial information about NSO’s customers and who they targeted. The company says its clients are government actors.
In October 2019, WhatsApp sued NSO for developing a software called Pegasus. The software exploited vulnerabilities in the platform to hack into the mobiles of 1,400 human rights activities, journalists, and lawyers — including 121 Indians, according to WhatsApp.
After the Indian Express reported in October 2019 that Indians had been affected by the breach, the IT Ministry sent a letter to the company, to which the company responded saying it had alerted authorities in May and September 2019 about the incident.
WhatsApp was the vector through which the Pegasus software was able to install itself on the target device through a missed video call without any user intervention. Once installed, the spyware was able to read the user’s screen and keypad entry, as well as take over the phone’s camera or microphone to potentially spy on what is happening in the phone’s surroundings.
NSO has argued that its customers are foreign “sovereigns” and a private agent of foreign states is immune in US courts.
The court ruled that the immunity only applied to private entities that were US citizens and that the company itself was not a foreign state.
Another one of NSO’s arguments was that it was a supplier and not an operator of the technology. “[W]hen defendants provide those support services, they do so entirely at the direction of their government customers, and defendants follow those directions completely,” the firm said. The court, however, said NSO still committed an intentional act by providing technical support.
In ruling that there were sufficient grounds to hold the trial in California, the court also sided with WhatsApp. It stated that, because WhatsApp’s servers are located in California, NSO entered the state to route malicious code to reach individual phones, meaning they “expressly aimed their international act at the forum state” and exceeded their authorised access.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines