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WhatsApp Spyware Litigation: Pegasus to Hand Over Code to Meta Potentially Crippling Global Spyware Misuse

Last Updated March 4, 2024 6:31 PM
James Morales
Last Updated March 4, 2024 6:31 PM

Key Takeaways

  • Meta has won an important victory in its legal battle with the Pegasus developer NSO Group.
  • The firm has sued the NSA over the use of its spyware to monitor WhatsApp users’ communications.
  • Separate lawsuits have also been filed by Apple and the Salvadorian news outlet El Faro.

In 2019, Meta filed a lawsuit against the Israeli spyware developer NSO, alleging its “Pegasus” mobile surveillance tool had been used to illegally intercept WhatsApp communications.

In a recent decision, Judge Phyllis Hamilton sided with Meta, ruling that NSO must hand over details of Pegasus’ code. The ruling is just the latest defeat for NSO, which faces mounting litigation over alleged failures to prevent its spyware from being abused.

Communications Providers Rally Against Illegal Spyware

Although NSO claims that Pegasus is intended to only be used against criminals and terrorists, the company has often found itself embroiled in controversy over the use of its spyware against political activists, journalists, and diplomats.

With the company legally required to share Pegasus with Meta, however, the WhatsApp developer will be better equipped to prevent future breaches of its encryption.

Alongside WhatsApp, Pegasus also targets iMessage and Telegram, letting intelligence agencies intercept communications sent using encrypted messaging services.

Following in Meta’s footsteps, in 2021, Apple filed a lawsuit seeking a permanent injunction to ban NSO from using any Apple software, services, or devices.

“State-sponsored actors like the NSO Group spend millions of dollars on sophisticated surveillance technologies without effective accountability. That needs to change,” Apple’s senior vice president of Software Engineering Craig Federighi said  at the time.

In that case, a California judge rejected  NSO’s bid to have the lawsuit thrown out in January, ruling that “the anti-hacking purpose of the [computer fraud and abuse act] fits Apple’s allegations to a T, and NSO has not shown otherwise.”

But app developers aren’t the only ones that have brought litigation against ONS.

Journalists Make a Stand Against Pegasus

In November 2022,  a group of journalists filed a complaint  in US federal court against NSO, accusing the company of deploying spyware to bug their phones.

The journalists, who work for the Salvadorian news outlet El Faro, claimed Pegasus was used to illegally hack into their phones and monitor their communications in violation of the Computer Fraud Abuse Act.

“NSO Group violated that law when it hacked into the plaintiffs’ phones,” said  Carrie DeCell, senior staff attorney at the Knight Institute which is supporting the claim. “Their devices were accessed remotely and surreptitiously, their communications and activities monitored, and their personal data accessed and stolen,” she added

El Faro’s co-founder Carlos Dada said the lawsuit was filed “ to defend our right to investigate and report, and to protect journalists around the world in their pursuit of the truth.”

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