The US Supreme Court has rejected spyware maker NSO Group’s bid for immunity in a WhatsApp lawsuit

The Supreme Court on Monday rejected an Israeli spyware maker’s attempt to block a high-profile lawsuit brought by the WhatsApp messaging service.

The judges left the rulings of the Court of First Instance against the Israeli company NSO Group. WhatsApp claims that NSO targeted around 1,400 users of the encrypted messaging service with highly sophisticated spyware.

WhatsApp’s parent company, Facebook, now called Meta Platforms Inc. , ban NSO from Facebook platforms and servers and recover unspecified damages.

NSO argued that it should be recognized as a foreign government agent and therefore entitled to immunity under US law that limits lawsuits against foreign countries. The request appeals two previous federal court rulings that rejected similar arguments made by the Israeli company.

The Biden administration has recommended that the court dismiss the appeal. “NSO is clearly not entitled to immunity here,” the Justice Department wrote.

NSO’s flagship product, Pegasus, allows operators to secretly hack into a target’s mobile phone, gaining access to messages, contacts, camera, microphone, and location history. NSO said only government law enforcement agencies could purchase the product, and all sales were approved by Israel’s Defense Ministry. It does not define its customers.

WhatsApp says at least 100 of the users linked to the lawsuit are journalists, rights activists and members of civil society. Critics said NSO’s clients include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Jordan and Poland and that these countries abused the system to intrude on critics and suppress dissent.

The Facebook logo’s Meta sign at the company’s headquarters in Menlo Park, Calif., Oct. 28, 2021. (AP/Tony Avelar)

NSO said it has safeguards in place to prevent breaches, though the company also said it has no control over how its customers use the product. Critics say the safeguards are not enough.

The WhatsApp case is among a series of legal battles that have plagued NSO. In a separate lawsuit, Apple said it aims to prevent NSO from breaking into products. It alleged that Pegasus had affected a small number of iPhone users worldwide, calling NSO employees “immoral 21st century mercenaries”.

In November, journalists from an investigative news outlet in El Salvador sued NSO in a US court after Pegasus spyware was discovered on their iPhones.

“Today’s decision paves the way for lawsuits brought by technology companies, as well as lawsuits by journalists and human rights advocates who have been victims of spyware attacks,” Carrie Dessel, senior attorney at the Knight First Amendment Institute at Columbia University, said in a statement. statment. It represents the Knight Institute of Journalists.

“We trust that the court will determine that the use of Pegasus by its customers was lawful,” NSO said in its own statement.

NSO has also been blacklisted by the US Department of Commerce, limiting its access to US technology. US officials have said the company’s products are complicit in “cross-border oppression”.

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