Google and Microsoft, along with other tech giants, have joined Facebook’s legal battle against NSO Group Technologies, the cyber-surveillance firm, which allegedly “impersonated Facebook as part of a ploy to get users to install its phone-hacking software.”
A blog post published Monday by Microsoft explained its decision to support Facebook's actions. Microsoft argued that companies like NSO Group, sometimes referred to as private-sector offensive actors (PSOAs), operate in a legal grey area with no rules.
“… foreign governments are using those surveillance tools, bought from PSOAs, to spy on human rights defenders, journalists and others, including U.S. citizens,” wrote Tom Burt, corporate vice president of customer security & Trust at Microsoft. “These tools allow the user to track someone’s whereabouts, listen in on their conversations, read their texts and emails, look at their photographs, steal their contacts list, download their data, [and] review their internet search history and more.”
Burt wrote that the expansion of sovereign immunity that NSO seeks would further encourage the cyber-surveillance industry to develop, sell and use tools to exploit vulnerabilities in violation of U.S. law.
While the NSO denies the allegations regarding Facebook, Israeli companies are known for creating some of the most sophisticated technologies worldwide.
A brief filed before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit last year followed reports that NSO had exploited a bug in the Facebook-owned instant-messaging program WhatsApp to help surveil more than 1,400 devices worldwide, including those belonging to journalists and human rights defenders.
NSO suggests that because it sells spyware, tools to police and spy agencies, it should benefit from “sovereign immunity.” The BBC reports that NSO lost that argument in the Northern District of California in July and has since appealed to the Ninth Circuit to have the ruling overturned.
Cisco, VMWare, and the Internet Association -- an industry lobby group representing companies such as Amazon, Twitter, Reddit, PayPal, eBay and Uber -- also joined Facebook to argue against any overturned ruling, saying that awarding sovereign immunity to NSO would lead to a proliferation of hacking technology and “more foreign governments with powerful and dangerous cyber-surveillance tools.