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Microsoft declares war on Israeli surveillance company NSO Group

Back in 2019, Israeli technology company NSO Group found itself embroiled in controversy when it was alleged that its Pegasus program was used to hack WhatsApp. The sophisticated attack technique allowed attackers to inject spyware into Android and iOS devices by simply calling them. The victim is not even required to attend the call in order for the attack to be successful.

While WhatsApp plugged the vulnerability, it later took NSO Group to court for its malicious actions. The surveillance company has denied wrongdoing multiple times using the defense of immunity since it claims that Pegasus is used on behalf of governments. Following recent reports of Al Jazeera journalists being hacked using software developed by NSO Group, Microsoft and various other corporations have now joined the fight against the Israeli firm.

Group of anonymous hackers in black costumes working with computers in office image via Shutterstock

In a sternly worded blog post, Corporate Vice President of Customer Security & Trust at Microsoft, Tom Burt has described NSO Group as the cyber mercenaries of the 21st century and stated that they should get no immunity. Together with Cisco, GitHub, Google, LinkedIn, VMWare, and the Internet Association, Microsoft has filed an amicus brief in WhatsApp's legal case against NSO Group. Simply stated, this means that the firms will be providing assistance to the court by offering technical expertise.

Microsoft has highlighted that Pegasus infected WhatsApp on 1,400 devices last year, including those of journalists and prominent figures fighting against human rights violations. It emphasized that NSO Group's business model is very dangerous for a number of reasons. Primarily, there is no guarantee that the cyber-weapons won't fall into the wrong hands. Even if NSO Group sells Pegasus only to governments, it could be handed over to customers who lack proper defenses, resulting in highly dangerous software being stolen. Microsoft also stated that:

[...] private-sector companies creating these weapons are not subject to the same constraints as governments. Many governments with offensive cyber capabilities are subject to international laws, diplomatic consequences and the need to protect their own citizens and economic interests from the indiscriminate use of these weapons. Additionally, some governments – like the United States – may share high-consequence vulnerabilities they discover with impacted technology providers so the providers can patch the vulnerability and protect their customers. Private actors like the NSO Group are only incented to keep these vulnerabilities to themselves so they can profit from them, and the exploits they create are constantly recycled by governments and cybercriminals once they get into the wild.

Lastly, the Redmond tech giant emphasized that such tools developed by private security firms are a threat to human rights and privacy. It stated that NSO Group's clients are spread throughout the world, and they utilize cyber weapons to track journalists and other opposing groups. Microsoft indicated that even if NSO Group's own intention is not to violate human rights, its tools certainly allow its clients to do so.

Moving forward, Microsoft has urged that private security firms such as NSO Group should be liable for any laws that are broken by using their tools, and they should not be granted immunity in any circumstances. The coalition hopes that the amicus brief will enable it to protect the rights and privacy of all its global customers.

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