This is a living resource document providing links and descriptions to litigation and other formal complaints concerning targeted digital surveillance and the digital surveillance industry. If you have additional resources to add to this document, please send to Siena Anstis: siena [at] citizen lab [dot] ca. This document was last updated on 4 November 2020.
NSO Group is an Israeli-based company which develops and sells spyware technology. It is majority owned by Novalpina Capital, a European private equity firm. In the past few years, investigations into NSO Group have revealed some information about the company’s operations. A non-exhaustive list of resources follows:
- Motherboard, “Meet NSO Group, The New Big Player in the Government Spyware Business” (24 August 2016)
- Forbes, “Everything We Know About NSO Group: The Professional Spies Who Hacked iPhones With a Single Text” (25 August 2016)
- Motherboard, “Government Hackers Caught Using Unprecedented iPhone Spy Tool” (25 August 2016)
- New York Times, “How Spy Tech Firms Let Governments See Everything on a Smartphone” (3 September 2016)
- Motherboard, “They Got ‘Everything’: Inside a Demo of NSO Group’s Powerful iPhone Malware” (20 September 2018)
- Haaretz, “Revealed: Israel’s Cyber-spy Industry Helps World Dictators Hunt Dissidents and Gays” (20 October 2018)
- Haaretz, “Revealed: Israeli Cyber Firm Negotiated Advanced Attack Capabilities With Saudis, Haaretz Reveals” (25 November 2018)
- NWA, “Israeli Firm Denies Its Spyware Aided in Writer’s Killing” (4 December 2018)
- Washington Post, “How a Chilling Saudi Cyberwar Ensnared Jamal Khashoggi” (7 December 2018)
- Washington Post, “Washington must wake up to the abuse of software that kills” (12 December 2018)
- Washington Post, “Covert Saudi Outreach to Israel Sputters After Journalist’s Murder” (18 December 2018)
- Yedioth Ahronot, “Weaving a cyber web” (11 January 2019)
- CNN, “How a hacked phone may have led killers to Khashoggi” (13 January 2019)
- Washington Post, “Mexican privacy watchdog criticizes government over spyware” (20 February 2019)
- Fast Company, “Israeli cyberattack firm woos investors amid a human rights firestorm” (9 March 2019)
- 60 Minutes, “CEO of Israeli Spyware-Maker on Fighting Terror, Khashoggi Murder, and Saudi Arabia” (24 March 2019)
- Financial Times, “Israeli group’s spyware ‘offers keys to Big Tech’s cloud” (18 July 2019)
- Access Now, “From India to Rwanda, the victims of NSO Group’s WhatsApp hacking speak out” (17 December 2020)
Citizen Lab reports on NSO Group and Pegasus spyware
The Citizen Lab has studied NSO Group and the deployment of Pegasus spyware against civil society activists, journalists, scientists, and politicians in a number of reports available here.
Citizen Lab communications to NSO Group and funders
The Citizen Lab has sent numerous communications to NSO Group about the human rights and corporate social responsibility implications of its business practices:
- Citizen Lab, Letter to Blackstone Group regarding potential NSO Group acquisition (25 July 2017) (open letter concerning the human rights concerns and risks of the acquisition)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to Francisco Partners (12 February 2018) (open letter concerning apparent use of Sandvine/Procera Networks Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) devices to deliver nation-state malware in Turkey and indirectly into Syria) and Francisco Partners, Email response to Citizen Lab letter dated 12 February 2018 (20 February 2018)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to Francisco Partners (29 May 2018) (follow up on Sandvine use in Turkey and Syria)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to NSO Group (13 September 2018) (open letter on Pegasus spyware operations in 45 countries) and NSO Group, Statement (17 September 2018)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to Francisco Partners (1 November 2018) (open letter on continued abuse of Pegasus technology)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to NSO Group (24 November 2018) (open letter on continued abuse of Pegasus technology in Mexico)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to Novalpina Capital (18 February 2019) (open letter on involvement of purchase of NSO Group) and Novalpina Capital, Response to Citizen Lab letter dated 18 February 2019 (1 March 2019)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to Novalpina Capital (6 March 2019) (continued correspondence on involvement in NSO acquisition) and Novalpina Capital, Response to Citizen Lab letter dated 6 March 2019 (15 May 2019)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to South Yorkshire Pensions Authority (24 May 2019) (open letter on Novalpina Capital investment fund) and South Yorkshire Pensions Authority, Response to Citizen Lab letter dated 24 May 2019 (24 May 2019)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to Novalpina Capital (18 June 2019) (open letter regarding Novalpina’s statement on UN Guiding Principles)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to South Yorkshire Pensions Authority (4 July 2019) (follow up letter to South Yorkshire Pensions Authority on investment in Novalpina Capital and NSO Group) and South Yorkshire Pensions Authority, Response to Citizen Lab letter dated 4 July 2019 (5 July 2019)
- Citizen Lab, Letter to South Yorkshire Pensions Authority (8 July 2020) (follow up letter, asking for their response in light of recent research regarding the continued abusive deployment of NSO Group’s surveillance technology) and South Yorkshire Pensions Authority, Response to Citizen Lab letter dated 8 July 2020 (9 July 2020)
Litigation against or implicating NSO Group
|United States||2019||Ongoing||Complaint filed by WhatsApp Inc. and Facebook Inc. against NSO Group Technologies Ltd. and Q Cyber Technologies Ltd. in Northern District of California
On 29 October 2019, WhatsApp and Facebook filed a complaint against NSO Group/Q Cyber Technologies in the Northern District of California. The plaintiffs allege that, between April 2019 and May 2019, the defendants used WhatsApp servers located in the US and elsewhere to send malware to approximately 1,400 mobile phones and devices. The plaintiffs seek injunctive relief and damages pursuant to the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the California Comprehensive Data Access and Fraud Act (Penal Code section 502), as well as for breach of contract and trespass to chattels. A copy of the complaint is available here.
|United Kingdom||2019||Ongoing||Lawsuit brought by Ghanem Almasarir in the United Kingdom against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia
Ghanem Almasarir has brought a civil legal claim for misuse of private information, harassment, and trespass to goods against the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA). Mr. Almasarir is a prominent Saudi dissident who has lived in the United Kingdom since 2003. He believes that the Saudi government used spyware known as Pegasus, acquired from NSO Group, and that they infected his mobile phones with this in order to modify, extract, and record all information stored on and communicated on these devices. He also believes that the spyware enabled the KSA to access the phones’ microphone and camera in order to see and hear what he was doing. Leigh Day, the firm representing Mr. Almasarir, prepared a press release available here. A claim was issued on 4 November 2019.
|Israel||2019||Closed||Petition appealing the Israeli Ministry of Defense’s decision to not revoke NSO Group’s export license in relation to the targeting of an Amnesty International staff member
On May 14, 2019, Israeli petitioners appealed the Israeli Ministry of Defense (MoD)’s decision to not revoke NSO Group’s export license in relation to the targeting of an Amnesty International staff member. Amnesty International supported the petition and submitted an affidavit. In July 2020, a Tel Aviv court rejected this attempt to force the Israeli MoD to reject NSO Group’s license.
|Israel||2018||Ongoing||Lawsuit brought by Omar Abdulaziz in Israel against NSO Group
Omar Abdulaziz filed a lawsuit in Israel against NSO Group. According to the New York Times, it alleges that NSO Group helped the Saudi royal court take over his smartphone and spy on his communications with murdered Jamal Khashoggi. NSO Group issued a statement that its products were “licensed for the sole use of providing governments and law enforcement agencies the ability to lawfully fight terrorism and crime.” And that contracts to use NSO Group spyware “are only provided after a full vetting and licensing by the Israeli government”. The company also added that it does not tolerate “misuse” of its products and that if there is “suspicion of misuse”, the company investigates it and takes appropriate action, including suspending or terminating a contract. The lawsuit was filed by Alaa Mahajna, an Israeli lawyer, in cooperation with Mazen Masri, a lecturer at the City University of London. The lawyers said in the court papers that they intend to argue that the exposure of the collaboration between Abdulaziz and Khashoggi “contributed in a significant manner to the decision to murder Mr. Khashoggi.”
|2018||Ongoing||Lawsuits brought by Mexican journalists and civil society activists and a Qatari citizen in Cyprus and Israel against NSO Group
Mexican journalists and civil society activists filed a lawsuit against NSO Group in Israel (a Qatari citizen also filed a suit against NSO Group in Cyprus). According to the New York Times, these lawsuits include documents and emails that directly challenge the company’s repeated assertions that it is not responsible for any illegal surveillance conducted by the governments that buy its spyware. These lawsuits were also filed by Alaa Mahajna and Mazen Masri.
|Israel||2018||Ongoing||Criminal prosecution against former NSO Group employee
In July 2018, the Israeli Justice Ministry said that a former employee of NSO Group has been charged with stealing intellectual property and trying to sell if for $50 million over the Darknet in a manner that could harm state security. The Justice Ministry said that, according to testimony gathered in the case, the former employee’s actions “endangered NSO and could have led to its collapse” and posed a threat to state security.
|Mexico||2017||N/A||Federal investigation by Mexican authorities into NSO Group in Mexico
A federal investigation by Mexican authorities into the misuse of spyware in Mexico was announced by the Mexican government in 2017. However, its efforts appear to have stalled. The New York Times reports that US authorities approached by the Mexican investigators believe it is a sham inquiry and refused to participate.
Gamma Group describes itself as an international manufacturer of surveillance and monitoring systems with technical sales offices in Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. It provides advanced technical surveillance, monitoring solutions, and advanced government training, as well as international consultancy to National and State Intelligence Departments and Law Enforcement Agencies. Gamma Group manufactured and sold a line of spyware products known as FinFisher/FinSpy. As with NSO Group, investigations into this company have provided some insight into its operations. A non-exhaustive list of resources follows:
- Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Spy Tech Companies & Their Authoritarian Customers, Part I: FinFisher and Amesys” (16 February 2012)
- Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Elusive FinFisher Spyware Identified and Analyzed” (25 July 2012)
- Motherboard, “Mobile Trojans Read Their Head, Repressive Governments Go For Their Checkbooks” (8 September 2012)
The Citizen Lab has studied Gamma Group and the deployment of FinFisher/FinSpy in several reports.
Litigation against or implicating Gamma Group
|UK||2018||Ongoing||Lawsuit brought by Bahraini activists in the UK against Gamma
Bahraini activists have started a legal action against Gamma alleging that the company was involved in the sale of spyware products to the Bahraini government knowing they would be used to crack down on protests during the Arab spring. The claimants say that they were targeted with the FinFisher/FinSpy program, which was manufactured in the UK and sold to the Bahraini government. They also accuse Gamma of providing training to Bahraini government officials on how to correctly use the software, along with technical support and software updates. All allege that the Bahraini government attacked their computers while they were in the UK. The claimants say they were targeted in relation to their pro-democracy campaigning during the Arab spring. Hassan Mushaima, one of the claimants, was jailed for life in 2011 by a military court in Bahrain. The claimants are represented by Leigh Day.
|US||2014||Affirmed dismissal by District Court||Doe v. Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia, 851 F.3d 7 (D.C. Cir. 2017), reh’g denied, 2017 U.S. App. LEXIS 10084 (D.C. Cir. June 6, 2017)
The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a lawsuit in federal court in Washington, D.C. alleging that the government of Ethiopia, using FinFisher/FinSpy, illegally wiretapped and invaded the privacy of EFF’s client, a U.S. citizen on U.S. soil. The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ultimately concluded in March 2017 that Ethiopia was immune from suit absent an exception under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which did not arise here. In response to the decision, EFF argued that the court had “held that foreign governments are free to spy on, injure, or even kill Americans in their own homes–as long as they do so by remote control” and that the decision was “extremely dangerous for cybersecurity.” Under this holding, there is no legal recourse if a foreign government “hacks into your car and drives it off the road, targets you for a drone strike, or even sends a virus to your pacemaker, as long as the government planned the attack on foreign soil.” For further analysis of this decision, see Lawfare and Motherboard.
Formal complaints against Gamma Group
|OECD National Contact Points (NCPs) in UK & Germany||2013||OECD NCPs issued decisions||OECD complaints by human rights groups against Gamma and Trovicor in UK and Germany
In 2013, Privacy International, Reporters Without Borders, Bahrain Watch, the Business Center for Human Rights, and the ECCHR filed a formal complaint with the UK National Contact Point for the OECD, as well as the equivalent German Contact Point, against Gamma and Trovicor. The UK Contact Point accepted the complaint for consideration against Gamma. In 2014, the UK Contact Point determined that Gamma was in violation of human rights guidelines. The German Contact Point refused to investigate the allegations and was only willing to continue with mediation in relation to Trovicor’s risk management.
|UK||2012||Judicial review granted||Privacy International complaint against HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) in the UK
Privacy International began investigating Gamma and the export of FinFisher/FinSpy spyware. After discovering that Gamma’s FinSpy was subject to the UK export control regime and that Gamma had only submitted a Control List Classification enquiry asking the government whether or not it needed an export license for the product in July 2012, Privacy International submitted a dossier of evidence against Gamma to HMRC and called for an investigation. HMRC is responsible for overseeing the enforcement of export regulations in the UK. HMRC refused to provide any details regarding any investigation into Gamma’s export practices, arguing that it was statutorily barred from doing so. In May 2013, Privacy International filed for judicial review of HMRC’s decision. In May 2014, the Administrative Court declared that HMRC acted unlawfully and “irrationally” in issuing blanket refusals into the status of any investigation into the potentially illegal export of FinFisher. The court quashed HMRC’s decision and ordered it to consider Privacy International’s request again.
|Germany||2014||Denied||Privacy International and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights criminal complaint against Gamma in Germany
In October 2014, Privacy International and the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights submitted a criminal complaint calling for an investigation into Gamma in Munich, Germany. In December 2014, public prosecution authorities in Munich decided not to launch investigatory proceedings against Gamma’s employees.
FinFisher GmbH is a Munich-based company that describes itself as having “the mission to provide first-class cyber solutions and knowledge for successful operations against organized crime.” The FinFisher spyware kit was previously said to have been produced by Gamma Group. FinFisher GmbH was formed sometime in 2013 and Gamma Group alleges that it stopped selling the product as of 2012.
Formal complaints against FinFisher
|Germany||2019||Ongoing||Criminal complaint made by Gesellschaft für Freiheitsrechte e.V., Reporters Without Borders Germany, the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, and Netzpolitik.org against the CEO of FinFisher GmbH and related entities.
The organizations argue that the Munich-based companies sold the FinSpy spyware to Turkey without an export license and that this assisted in the surveillance of opposition members and journalists by the Turkish government. Public prosecutors in Munich have reportedly opened an investigation. On October 14, 2020, DW reported that “German Customs Investigation Bureau (ZKA) searched 15 residential and business premises in Germany and abroad last week with connections to the Munich-based surveillance software firm FinFisher.”
Amesys (renamed Nexa Technologies) is a French company that makes communications equipment and other related equipment for aerospace, defence, marine, energy, and the telecommunications industry, including surveillance equipment. A non-exhaustive list of resources on this company follows:
- Electronic Frontier Foundation, “Spy Tech Companies & Their Authoritarian Customers, Part I: FinFisher and Amesys” (16 February 2012)
- Le Monde, “Après la Libye de Kadhafi, Amesys a vendu son système de surveillance à l’Égypte de Sissi” (5 July 2017)
- France Inter, “Amesys: qui est ce marchand d’armes numériques français?” (5 July 2017)
- Business & Human Rights Centre, Amesys lawsuit (re: Libya)
Litigation against or implicating Amesys
|France||2017||Ongoing||Criminal investigation into Amesys and the sale of surveillance equipment to Egypt
In November 2017, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Ligue française des droits de l’Homme (LDH), with support from the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS), requested an investigation into the sale of surveillance equipment by this French company to Egypt and the potential role of this equipment in widespread oppression under the Al Sissi regime in Egypt. In December 2017, the Paris Prosecutor acknowledged the gravity of the allegations, giving Egyptian victims the opportunity to become civil parties to the case and testify in France as well as enable FIDH and LDH to become civil parties.
|France||2011||Ongoing||Criminal investigation into Amesys and the sale of surveillance equipment to Libya
In October 2011, FIDH and LDH filed a complaint alleging the complicity of Amesys and its executive managers in acts of torture for having signed and executed a commercial agreement for the provision of surveillance technology to the Libyan regime in 2007. In May 2012, a formal criminal investigation was opened in France. After subsequent litigation over this decision to open an investigation, in January 2013, the Chamber of Criminal Investigation of the Court of Appeal upheld the initial order to open the investigation.
Qosmos is a French technology company that specializes in Deep Packet Inspection-based IP classification and network intelligence technology. A non-exhaustive list of resources on this company follows:
- Reuters, “France investigates tech firm accused of aiding Syria” (26 July 2012)
- Business and Human Rights Centre, Qosmos investigation (re: Syria)
Litigation against or implicating Qosmos
|France||2012||Ongoing||Criminal investigation into Qosmos and sale of equipment to Syria
FIDH and LDH filed a criminal complaint before a Paris court urging for an investigation into the involvement of French companies supplying surveillance equipment to Bashar El-Assad’s Syrian government. The complaint named Qosmos, a French company, in particular alleging that it is complicit in human rights abuses, including torture, by the Syrian government by providing it with surveillance equipment. In April 2014, a full judicial investigation was brought against Qosmos by the Paris Court for complicity in torture. In April 2015, an investigative judge declared Qosmos an “assisted witness”.
|US||2018||Closed||Broidy Capital Management, LLC et al v. State of Qatar et al.
Elliot Broidy, a top fundraiser for Donald Trump, filed a lawsuit against the state of Qatar and Washington lobbyist Nick Muzin as well as others blaming them for hacking his computers and leaking unflattering information to the media. In August 2018, the Qatari state and Muzin were dismissed from the suit.
* * *
If you have tips on additional litigation or formal complaints against digital surveillance companies not covered in this document, please email Siena Anstis: siena [at] citizenlab [dot] ca.