The United Nations called for an investigation Wednesday into allegations that the crown prince of Saudi Arabia sent a text message encrypted with spyware to the cellphone of Amazon CEO and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos. According to news reports and U.N. investigators, forensic analysis found evidence that the Pegasus-3 malware, developed by the Israeli NSO Group, was used in the 2018 hack.
The technology company has drawn the attention of human rights and privacy advocates, who are seeking to rein in its practices.
Israeli human rights lawyer Eitay Mack is one of them. He’s part of a team suing Israel’s Ministry of Defense to revoke NSO’s export license to limit the company’s right to sell its signature spyware abroad.
“It’s our responsibility that surveillance systems that claim to be for targeting terrorist or criminal organizations will not be used for human rights violations,” Mack said.
The suit, brought this month in partnership with London-based Amnesty International and other human rights groups, alleges that NSO’s “Pegasus software has been used to target journalists and activists across the globe — including in Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates,” according to Amnesty International.
Amnesty International has no connection to or comment on the Bezos allegations.
NSO has denied the general charges, saying that it sells technology to states and law enforcement only “to help them fight terrorism and serious crime.”
Both the company and the Ministry of Defense have declined to comment on the case. NSO does not reveal its clients, although experts say they include Middle Eastern and Latin American countries.
Part of the problem, Mack said, is that governments can choose to paint any opposition as terrorism. “In many countries around the world, the definition of terrorist is someone supporting democracy or human rights or indigenous rights,” he said.
The Ministry of Defense has oversight over technology and arms exports, which includes approving licenses for Israeli defense and security companies to conduct sales of spyware.
“NSO continues to profit from its spyware being used to commit abuses against activists across the world and the Israeli government has stood by and watched it happen,” Danna Ingleton, deputy director of Amnesty Tech, said in a statement.
Amnesty’s allegations, filed in a Tel Aviv district court, echo findings in Thursday’s U.N. report.
The report, written by human rights investigators Agnes Callamard and David Kaye, cited “a pattern of targeted surveillance of perceived opponents” by Saudi authorities that was relevant to “ongoing evaluation of claims about the Crown Prince’s involvement in the 2018 murder of Saudi and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”
The CIA has concluded that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Khashoggi, a government critic. The crown prince has denied any involvement in the Khashoggi and Bezos incidents.
The U.N. investigators further found that the forensic analysis of evidence from Bezos’s phone “suggests the possible involvement of the Crown Prince in surveillance of Mr. Bezos, in an effort to influence, if not silence, The Washington Post’s reporting on Saudi Arabia.”
In October, WhatsApp, which is owned by Facebook, filed its own lawsuit against NSO in a federal court in San Francisco. The encrypted messaging app accused the company of helping government spies hack the phones of 1,400 users on several continents.
The suit in Israel against NSO is ongoing but is playing out behind closed doors, meaning the arguments and results probably won’t be released to the public. Human rights advocates said they will challenge the state for the information to be made public at every step of the process.
The presiding judge, Rachel Barkai, issued a gag order at the initial hearing Thursday, siding with the government’s claim that if Amnesty could give public testimony, then the state’s silence in court could appear like an admission of guilt. The court also cited national security concerns as cause for barring the media and public from the proceedings.
“The Ministry of Defense, instead of treating this issue as a human rights crisis, they are treating this issue as a PR crisis,” Mack said. “Which I think is madness, as they need to give answers.”
Mack has been part of other cases aimed at curbing the ministry’s sales of arms and surveillance systems to governments accused of human rights violations, including in Myanmar, Cameroon and South Sudan. These cases were similarly placed under gag order on national security grounds.
In the cases of Myanmar (also known as Burma) and South Sudan, Mack said, public pressure and not just the court proceedings helped to push Israel to stop the sales.
Regardless of the case’s outcome, he urged the Israeli government to revoke NSO’s export license.
“Where there is smoke, there is fire,” he said. “There is so much smoke all around the world with different claims about the abuse of NSO’s system. The Ministry of Defense should take responsibility and try to fix the problem with or without the court.”