Spyware - Apple Starts Legal Action Against NSO Group

Apple is suing Israeli spyware firm NSO Group and its parent company for allegedly targeting iPhone users with a powerful hacking tool. 

NSO's Pegasus software can infect both iPhones and Android devices, allowing operators to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones and cameras.

The complaint provides new information on how NSO Group infected victims’ devices with its Pegasus spyware. 

The lawsuit was filed in the federal court in San Jose, California, and alleges that NSO Group was engaged in concerted efforts in 2021 to attack Apple customers, products and servers through dangerous malware and spyware. “State-sponsored actors like the NSO Group spend millions of dollars on sophisticated surveillance technologies without effective accountability. That needs to change,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering. 

US Government Blacklist

The Apple action follows only a couple of weeks after the  Israeli company was added to a US trade blacklist.
NSO Group's Pegasus software has reportedly been used by nation states to target the phones of rights activists and journalists and has consequently placed NSO Group, on its "entity list", banning business dealings with them.

The other firms added to the list with NSO Group are fellow Israeli spyware agency Candiru, Russia’s Positive Technologies and Singapore’s Computer Security Initiative Consultancy.

The Israeli company has in the past sold its surveillance software to Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and other countries with poor human rights records. The company has consistently defended its actions by claiming that its surveillance tools are meant to be used by its customers to investigate serious crimes and terrorism. It has also alleged that it has no information about how its tools are used against targets.

Apple wants to hold NSO Group and its parent company OSY Technologies "accountable for the surveillance and targeting of Apple users" and is seeking a permanent injunction to ban NSO Group from using any Apple devices, software or services "to prevent further abuse and harm to its users...  "Defendants are notorious hackers, amoral 21st century mercenaries who have created highly sophisticated cyber-surveillance machinery that invites routine and flagrant abuse," Apple wrote in its legal complaint.

The US government statement about placing put NSO Group on its trade blacklist says that that the company's software had "enabled foreign governments to conduct transnational repression, which is the practice of authoritarian governments targeting dissidents, journalists and activists". 

NSO denies those claims, saying it only works with law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies from countries with good human-rights records.

In July, Paris-based non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International said NSO's Pegasus spyware may have been used to snoop on more than 1,000 journalists, rights activists and other prominent individuals, from about 50 countries. President Emmanuel Macron's phone number also reportedly showed up on a leaked list of French government minsters said to be bugged with Pegasus. 

Apple stated in its complaint that the NSO created more than 100 fake Apple ID user credentials to carry out its attacks. While its servers were not hacked, the Israeli firm misused and manipulated Apple's servers to deliver the attacks on iPhone users. 

The US and Israel are close allies, with their respective cyber-experts having co-operated to restrain Iran's nuclear programme. But Pegasus spyware has emerged as a formidable cyber-weapon, used by some of the most  autocratic regimes in the Middle East to target a wide range of people, not just criminals and terrorists. Journalists, lawyers, peace activists and other dissidents have all had their phones secretly infected with malware that allows the customer to read every message, access all their data and even remotely turn on the microphone without the owner's knowledge.

Apple:     Reuters:     Computing:     BBC:    JPost:   New York Times:   Times of Israel:    The Print

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