Cyber: Apple Sues NSO Group Over Spyware Hacks

  • General
  • November 23, 2021
  • 35
  • 6 minutes read
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Tech giant Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) has filed a lawsuit against NSO Group, a controversial Israeli company that sells smartphone hacking tools and has been implicated in the hacks and surveillance of many notable persons, including journalists, activists, and business executives, by state-sponsored actors.

Apple has sued NSO Group for infecting iPhones with spyware to track users of interest. As part of the suit, the tech giant seeks a permanent injunction to ban NSO Group from using any Apple products.

  • NSO Group is best known for its Pegasus spyware that can be covertly installed on mobile phones running most versions of iOS and Android. The company exploits vulnerabilities in both operating systems to introduce spyware into a phone without the user’s knowledge.
  • Pegasus was the center of a Washington Post investigation called “The Pegasus Project,” revealing that the spyware was used to surveil over 1,000 identified notable individuals across countries with shoddy human rights records. Once Pegasus is installed in a phone, it’s able to hijack the microphone, camera, and other sensitive data, Apple alleges.
  • Barely three weeks ago, the US government added NSO Group to a blacklist that heavily restricts its commercial activities with American firms. It was a significant blow to NSO that’s now been compounded by Apple’s lawsuit. Before Apple, tech giant Meta (formerly Facebook) also sued NSO for exploiting a WhatsApp bug to install spyware.
  • NSO sells its spyware to governments around the globe, many with spotty human rights records, supposedly to surveil criminals and bad actors. The line gets grey in determining bad actors as different countries have different laws designating such. For example, a person speaking out against a despotic government could be labeled a bad actor. 
  • NSO is an Israeli company and operates under the country’s laws. It requires explicit approval from the Israeli government before selling its spyware to any other government.
“The steps we’re taking today will send a clear message: In a free society, it is unacceptable to weaponize powerful state-sponsored spyware against those who seek to make the world a better place,” said Ivan Krstić, head of Apple Security Engineering and Architecture, said in a statement.

“Apple runs one of the most sophisticated security engineering operations in the world, and we will continue to work tirelessly to protect our users from abusive state-sponsored actors like NSO Group,” Krstić said.
  • In line with the lawsuit, Apple said it’d donate $10mn plus any awarded damages to cybersecurity research and advocacy groups such as Amnesty Tech and Citizen Lab, which were both instrumental in identifying NSO victims.
  • With billions of dollars and extreme power at its disposal, Apple is well suited to battle NSO in court, particularly while the spyware vendor is reeling from its US sanctions. 
NSO is owned by Novalpina Capital, a European private equity firm. However, the PE firm is reportedly dissolving due to co-founder disputes, leaving the future ownership of NSO uncertain.

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