The other day, Apple announced that it has filed a lawsuit against NSO Group, which means that we have received a new legal serial on the neck.
In this article, we try to figure out what it’s all about and what it means to you as a consumer.
1. What is NSO Group?
NSO Group is a technology company headquartered in the Israeli city of Herzliya, just outside Tel Aviv. Since its founding in 2010, the company has experienced significant growth and in 2017 it was valued at one billion dollars.
The main source of revenue is the sale of various types of monitoring tools, including Pegasus, which are sold to authorities around the world.
2. What has Pegasus been used for?
Ten years ago, Pegasus was planted on a mobile phone belonging to the infamous drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, which helped him to be arrested and brought to justice. Mexico’s then President Felipe Calderón took the opportunity to thank the NSO Group for the help and suddenly new orders came from all sides.
A few years later, however, there were reports that Pegasus was used not only to keep track of criminals, but also to spy on human rights activists and journalists. For example, the United Arab Emirates targeted in August 2016 activist Ahmed Mansoor, this by sending an SMS to his Iphone 6 with a link that installed Pegasus on the sly.
Soon, similar reports came in from a number of countries, including Turkey, Qatar, Kenya, Uzbekistan, Mozambique, Morocco, Yemen, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Bahrain.
In December 2018, the New York Times was able to reveal that Saudi Arabia had used Pegasus in connection with the notorious mass murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. NSO Group CEO Shalev Hulio had personally traveled to the capital Riyadh to sell surveillance tools worth $ 55 million.
In December 2020, The Citizen Lab revealed that Saudi Arabia had used Pegasus to spy on two journalists in London and 36 employees of Al Jazeera in Qatar. An even greater revelation came in July 2021 as 17 news outlets around the world presented evidence that Pegasus was used to spy not only on activists and journalists, but also dissidents and leading politicians in a wide range of countries.
3. Who is affected by this?
In principle, anyone who engages in politics, journalism or the like can be at risk of being monitored. Of course, surveillance can also be used for financial crime or industrial espionage, as all unencrypted communication that takes place via our computers and mobile phones can end up in the wrong hands.
The EU and the US have put heavy pressure on Israel in order to limit the use of Pegasus and similar spy tools. It has had the effect that sales in the future are limited to 37 countries that are currently classified as democratic. Of course, this does not prevent previous customers from continuing to use the software for a long time to come.
4. Why is Apple so angry at the NSO Group?
Part of the monitoring has taken place via Iphone, this as Pegasus has exploited various vulnerabilities in iOS and cloud services such as Icloud. As a result, the rumor of high security in Apple products has gained momentum, something that in the long run can lead to reduced revenue for the company.
In the lawsuit, NSO Group is accused of having carried out cyber attacks against Apple and its customers, among other things through the attack “Forcedentry” which exploited a now fixed security flaw in iOS.
Apple’s hope is that the California District Court will ban the NSO Group from using Apple’s products and services, but it is highly doubtful whether this is legally possible.
To be on the safe side, Iphone users are encouraged to update to the latest version of IOS as soon as possible.
5. What could be the consequences of the legal dispute between Apple and the NSO Group?
If Apple wins the battle, it would be more difficult for the NSO Group to develop new versions of Pegasus that work on iOS 15 and later, however, it is of course still possible to spy on users running older versions of the operating system.
If NSO Group wins the battle, we can count on it only a matter of time before new versions of Pegasus appear that work with Apple’s latest operating system.
From a consumer point of view, it would probably be best if Apple wins the battle, but at the same time it can be argued that it would be dangerous for technology manufacturers to decide who is allowed to use their products. Likewise, one could argue that it is in fact good if Apple is forced to tighten security due to software like Pegasus.
From a democracy point of view, it is of course bad that authorities around the world spy on journalists, activists and politicians with the help of our computers and mobile phones. On the other hand, it can be argued that the technology can also be used in positive contexts, for example to put drug lords like El Chapo.
We can probably expect that there will be a similar polarization in this legal battle as in all other battles that Apple has been involved in. Some will side with Apple more or less automatically, while others will side with the other side exactly equally automatically.