TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Amnesty International called on Thursday for Israel’s government to ensure that an Israeli company, whose spyware has been linked to a WhatsApp breach that may have targeted human rights groups, be held accountable for the way its software is used.
Amnesty on Tuesday filed a petition in Israel seeking the revocation of NSO Group’s export license and told Reuters that it was up to the government to take a firmer stance against export licenses that have “resulted in human rights abuses.”
Israel’s Ministry of Defense declined to comment.
WhatsApp, a unit of Facebook, said on Tuesday that a security breach on its messaging app may have targeted human rights groups.
According to Eva Galperin, director of cybersecurity at San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation, WhatsApp told human rights groups it believed the spyware used was developed by Israel’s NSO. A second person familiar with the matter also identified spyware from NSO.
Amnesty said in an emailed statement to Reuters that NSO has “again and again demonstrated their intent to avoid responsibility for the way their software is used,” and that only government intervention would change that.
NSO has not commented on any specific attacks, but following the WhatsApp breach it said it would investigate any “credible allegations of misuse” of its technology which “is solely operated by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.”
NSO’s biggest shareholder, Novalpina Capital, said in a statement to Reuters that it intends to bring NSO’s governance into alignment with United Nations principles and will seek insights from Amnesty and other groups “into how best to achieve this important goal.”
WhatsApp, one of the world’s most popular messaging tools which is used by 1.5 billion people monthly, said it had notified the U.S. Department of Justice to help with an investigation into the breach and encouraged its users to update to the latest version of the app, where the breach had been fixed.
One target of the new WhatsApp exploit was a United Kingdom-based human rights lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, Reuters reported on Tuesday. The lawyer is helping a Saudi dissident and several Mexican journalists mount civil cases against NSO for its alleged role in selling hacking tools to the Saudi and Mexican governments, which they allege were used to hack into their phones.
NSO says it sells only to law enforcement and intelligence agencies pursuing legitimate targets, such as terrorists and criminals.
Novalpina, in a May 15 letter to Amnesty signed by founding partner Stephen Peel, said Novalpina was “determined to do whatever is necessary to ensure that NSO technology is used for the purpose for which it is intended – the prevention of harm to fundamental human rights arising from terrorism and serious crime – and not abused in a manner that undermines other equally fundamental human rights.”
Additional reporting by Steven Scheer; Editing by Susan Fenton