The list of legal challenges against NSO Group continues to mount after 17 additional journalists from seven countries have filed complaints with prosecutors in Paris, France.
To date, international media freedom organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and two French/Moroccan journalists have filed cases in court over serious concerns that their governments were spying on them due to their work as journalists, carrying out vital public interest investigations.
The latest journalists to file complaints include Sevinc Abassova from Azerbaijan, Szabolcs Panyi and Andras Szabo from Hungary, and others from India, Togo, and Mexico.
Among the other complainants are Shubhranshu Choudhary, an RSF correspondent in India, and two RSF Award Winners, Hicham Mansouri from Morocco and Swati Chaturvedi from India.
The Pegasus Project, an international investigation between Amnesty International, Forbidden Stories, and 17 media organisations in 10 countries, revealed that the NSO Group had created software called Pegasus that was being used to spy on journalists and activists around the world.
A leak of some 50,000 phone numbers was sent to Amnesty International, all of which are believed to be targets of NSO Group clients.
The software can infiltrate a target’s phone without detection and enables the controller to use the phone’s camera and microphone to surveil and track movement, log messages, calls, keystrokes and other sensitive data.
Its targets have included at least 180 journalists from every continent. It also surveilled those close to journalists and activists, supposedly to provide insight into their lives through family members and spouses.
RSF spokesperson Pauline Ades-Mevel said that the complaints filed by journalists who hail from every continent demonstrate the sheer scale of surveillance carried out with NSO Group’s Pegasus software.
“The investigation should identify all those involved, whether company executives or senior government officials in the countries concerned. In the face of a scandal so fraught with consequences for press freedom, no doubts must remain. The veil must be lifted completely, and justice must be done.”
RSF has asked the rapporteurs to ask for explanations from the governments involved and suspected of using the software to spy on journalists.
RSF has also asked them to demand international regulation of the sale, use and export of such software and place an international moratorium on the sale of Pegasus and any similar programmes. The UN Human Rights Council will also be asked to adopt an “ad hoc mechanism” to investigate the sale and use of spy software.
This latest action brings the total number of journalists seeking legal recourse in France to 19, as well as the suits filed by RSF. All of them have mandated RSF to refer their cause to the UN.
Shortly after the Malta Labour Party won the elections in 2013, they were approached via a third party for software similar to Pegasus, created by the now-defunct company The Hacking Team. Emails published on WikiLeaks stated that the deal wouldn’t progress as the government already possessed “similar software”.
A former employee of NSO Group told Vice that a Spanish customer had bought Pegasus software in 2015. They stated that it had been “unlocked” for use in Malta.
The Shift contacted Vice on Malta’s involvement. The journalists were unable to share any further information but confirmed what was written in their article.
Between 2015 and 2016, Russian/Israeli citizen Anatoly Hurgin was granted Maltese citizenship as a part of the cash-for-passports scheme. He was the owner of a spy hacking company, Ability Inc, also linked to the NSO Group.
Hurgin had publicly described NSO Group as “one of the best companies in the field” and suggested that they had worked together. Ability Inc reportedly handled the network side of operations, and NSO Group was responsible for placing malware onto target devices.