Rights groups urge EU to ban NSO over clients’ use of Pegasus spyware

Dozens of human rights organisations have called on the European Union to impose global sanctions on NSO Group and take “every action” to prohibit the sale, transfer, export and import of the Israeli company’s surveillance technology.

The letter, signed by 86 organisations including Access Now, Amnesty International and the Digital Rights Foundation, said the EU’s sanctions regime gave it the power to target entities that were responsible for “violations or abuses that are of serious concern as regards to the objectives of the common foreign and security policy, including violations or abuses of freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, or of freedom of opinion and expression”.

“These rights have been repeatedly violated using NSO technology,” the letter said, pointing to findings by a UN special rapporteur on freedom of opinion who found that use of spyware by abusive governments could also “facilitate extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions and killings, or enforced disappearance of persons.”

The letter cited recent allegations, reported by the Guardian and other publications, that NSO’s signature surveillance software, known as Pegasus, was used to hack the devices of six Palestinian human rights activists.

It also follows the publication last summer of the Pegasus Project, an investigation by the Guardian and 15 other media organisations, which was coordinated by the French media organisation Forbidden Stories. It exposed the ways in which Pegasus has been used to target journalists, human rights activists and other members of civil society.

NSO has said that its technology, which has been sold to government clients around the world, is only meant to be used against serious criminals and terrorists. It has denied many of the allegations included in the Pegasus Project and has said it investigates credible claims of abuse of its software.

The Biden administration last month added NSO Group to the commerce department’s entities list, a trade restriction that in effect means the company has been blacklisted in the US. The company has said it would try to reverse the administration’s designation.

It is not clear how EU member states will respond to the call for a boycott. Allegations that the Hungarian government has used NSO Group software to target journalists and critics of the prime minister, Viktor Orbán, have been met with intense concern inside the European Commission. But other EU states are also believed to be clients, including Spain. Germany’s internal police also use the spyware.

The letter was sent to high representative Josep Borrell, the EU representative for foreign affairs and security.

In response to recent queries about NSO’s long-term viability in the face of political and financial pressures after a recent downgrade by Moody’s, NSO said in a statement: “NSO Group remains strong, proud, and confident, and we will continue to provide technologies to help law enforcements catch paedophiles, terrorists and criminals.”

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