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The New Arab Staff

Tech giants join Facebook battle against Israeli spyware company amid suspected UAE-Saudi Al-Jazeera hack

Tech giants filed the amicus brief in support of Facebook on Monday [Twitter]

Date of publication: 22 December, 2020

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Tech giants including Microsoft and Google have described NSO's spyware tools, revealed on Monday for their involvement in the hacking of Al-Jazeera journalists, as "powerful and dangerous".
Leading US tech giants on Monday joined Facebook's legal battle against Israeli surveillance software company NSO after a damning report by a Canadian research group revealed that NSO spyware was used to hack dozens of Al-Jazeera employees and one journalist from the The New Arab’s sister channel, Al-Araby TV.

Microsoft, Google, Cisco, VMWare and the Internet Association filed an amicus brief in support of Facebook's lawsuit against NSO, Reuters reported, which concerns the cyber surveillance firm's exploitation of a bug in Facebook-owned WhatsApp, enabling it to spy on more than 1,400 people worldwide.

The tech companies' brief argues against NSO's defence - that it should receive "sovereign immunity" because its software is sold to national police and intelligence agencies.

The brief says that such a move would promote the proliferation of hacking technology and provide "more foreign government with powerful and dangerous cyber surveillance tools".

That would present "dramatically more opportunities for those tools to fall into the wrong hands and be used nefariously," the brief argues.

NSO had lost their argument against Facebook's lawsuit at a federal court in the Northern District of California in July but have since escalated to the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, where the tech companies filed their brief on Monday.

This comes as a report by the Canadian communications research group Citizens Lab on Sunday found that the NSO Group's Pegasus software was used by "government operatives" likely from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to hack journalists, producers, anchors and executives at Al-Jazeera and Al-Araby TV.

Read more: Dozens of Al-Jazeera journalists targeted by suspected UAE-Saudi hack using Israeli spyware

The coordinated attacks on the Qatar-based broadcasters, which exploited a vulnerability by Apple in iPhones to allow the infection of cellphones even without the user taking any action, occurred in July and August, just weeks before the Trump administration announced the normalisation of ties between Israel and the UAE.

The UAE and Saudi Arabia broke off relations with Qatar in 2017, accusing it of "supporting terrorists" and presenting Qatar with a list of thirteen demands, including closing Al-Jazeera and The New Arab. Doha has vigorously denied the charge and rejected the demands.

The NSO group cast doubt on Citizen Lab's accusations in the report, saying the firm provides technology for the sole purpose of enabling "governmental law enforcement agencies to tackle serious organised crime and counterterrorism".

NSO's spyware has repeatedly been deployed to hack journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and dissidents.

Most notably, the spyware was implicated in the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

Several alleged targets of the spyware, including a close friend of Khashoggi and several Mexican civil society figures, sued NSO in an Israeli court over the hacking.

Agencies contributed to this report.

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