Spyware Maker NSO Promises Reform but Keeps Snooping

MUMBAI, India — Bela Bhatia, a human rights lawyer in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh, is accustomed to surveillance. She works in a region prone to both guerrilla violence and government reprisals, and the authorities do not like many of her clients.

Still, Ms. Bhatia said she was shocked to learn her phone had been infected with invasive spyware delivered through missed video calls on WhatsApp, a messaging service that is used by about 400 million people in India, WhatsApp’s biggest market.

“You are carrying the spy in the pocket with you everywhere you go,” she said. “It is much more than one had imagined that the Indian state could do.”

Ms. Bhatia is one of more than a hundred Indians who learned in recent months that every keystroke, call and GPS location on their phones had probably been recorded by the surveillance software, which is sold by the NSO Group, an Israeli firm.

“Now I see a pattern,” he said. “Other lawyers who were defending activists related to Bhima Koregaon and Chhattisgarh were being targeted. Who else but the government would do it, as we were targeted after the arrests of the activists?”

Santosh Bhartiya, a former member of Parliament and the editor in chief of the Hindi-language news site Chauthi Duniya, was more mystified as to why he was targeted. Although his news site is critical of the government, Mr. Bhartiya said, he is also well known to top government officials. “I am a journalist, but I am not that kind of journalist that people will do surveillance on,” he said.

Another target, Shu Choudhary, a former BBC journalist who has been active in Chhattisgarh peace talks, said he had become resigned to government surveillance. What disturbed him most was just how invasive and “vicious” NSO’s spyware proved to be.

“This is an illegal attack on our fundamental rights, but it’s nothing new,” Mr. Choudhary said. “It’s just that the scope of surveillance is much higher than anything we’ve experienced before.”

When asked about the targets in India, NSO repeated the statement it made when the WhatsApp lawsuit was announced: Its technology is used to fight crime and terrorism and is not licensed for spying on human rights activists and journalists.

Last June, the United Nations Special Rapporteur David Kaye called for an immediate moratorium on the sale of surveillance technology until rigorous human rights safeguards could be put in place.

But since the U.N. has no power to enforce a moratorium, spyware sales continued unabated. In September, NSO published new human rights and whistleblower policies that included a renewed commitment to due diligence and to contractually obligating its customers to restrict the use of NSO’s products to the investigation of crime and terrorism.

In response to NSO’s new policies, Mr. Kaye wrote a letter in October questioning how exactly the company planned to hold its clients to account when its spyware had been so readily misused and when it had no direct way of monitoring how governments deploy its products.

“The industry is incredibly opaque and the users are opaque,” Mr. Kaye said. “On both sides, the opacity makes it impossible to understand what’s going on in this space.”

Mr. Kaye and others said the WhatsApp lawsuit filed last week could be the beginning of checks in an industry that has had none. The lawsuit is the first case of a technology company holding another to account for exploiting its products for surveillance.

Although the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, which was cited in the suit, does not apply to “lawfully authorized investigative, protective, or intelligence activity” by the government, there is no exception for private actors, like NSO.

“I imagine NSO Group is pretty worried about that,” Mr. Kaye said.

In a demonstration of how seriously it takes the case, Facebook started blocking NSO employees from their personal Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram accounts last week, according to NSO employees’ posts in public web forums.

The people targeted with NSO’s technology said they do not expect the lawsuits to change their reality of being under near-constant government surveillance.

“In an ideal world, everything would be done legally, but we live in dangerous times,” said Mr. Choudhary. “We need to try to protect ourselves as much as we can.”

Vindu Goel reported from Mumbai, India. Nicole Perlroth reported from San Francisco. Suhasini Raj contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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