TEL AVIV, ISRAEL (AP) – The Israeli tech company NSO Group on Sunday filed a libel lawsuit against an Israeli newspaper after it published a series of explosive articles claiming Israeli police unlawfully used its spyware on dozens of public figures.
The articles by the Israeli business newspaper Calcalist published over recent weeks triggered an uproar over what the newspaper claimed was the police’s unfettered use of sophisticated phone hacking software on a broad swath of figures. An investigation into the reports, which were unsourced, found no indication of abuse.
The NSO suit targets a specific article published earlier this month, which said the company allowed clients to delete traces of their use of the spyware, a claim it denies. But the company, which has faced a growing backlash over its product, questioned the overall credibility of the reports, calling the series of articles “one-sided, biased and false.”
“The thorough investigation that was carried out pulls the rug out from under another attempt to discredit the company and its workers and serves as additional proof that not every journalistic investigation with a sensational headline about NSO is indeed based on facts,” the company said in a statement. NSO was asking for ILS1 million (USD310,000) in damages that it said would be donated to charity.
The Calcalist reports said police spied on politicians, protesters and even members of former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inner circle, including one of his sons. The paper said police used Pegasus, the controversial spyware program developed by NSO, without obtaining a court warrant.
The investigation led by Israel’s deputy attorney general found no evidence to support the claims, although the journalist, Tomer Ganon, has stood by his work. The investigation’s findings were a rare piece of good news for NSO, which has faced mounting criticism over the spyware.
Pegasus is a powerful tool that allows its operator to infiltrate a target’s phone and sweep up its contents, including messages, contacts and location history. NSO has been linked to snooping on human rights activists, journalists and politicians in countries ranging from Saudi Arabia to Poland to Mexico to the United Arab Emirates.
In November, the United States Commerce Department blacklisted the company, saying its tools had been used to “conduct transnational repression.”
NSO said it sells the product only to government entities to fight crime and terrorism, with all sales regulated by the Israeli government.
The company does not identify its clients and said it has no knowledge of who is targeted. Although it said it has safeguards in place to prevent abuse, it said it ultimately does not control how its clients use the software.