Apple, Inc. on Tuesday sued Israeli company NSO Group – the developers of the Pegasus spyware allegedly used by governments around the world, including the Indian administration, to snoop on private messages and correspondence of tens of thousands journalists, activists and politicians.
The suit comes after India’s Supreme Court ordered a full inquiry into allegations the government used Pegasus to illegally target its citizens.
The US-based consumer electronics giant filed the lawsuit at a California federal court, seeking to block the NSO Group from targeting the estimated 1.65 billion iPhones in use worldwide.
As far as India is concerned, as of January this year, Apple shipped nearly 3.2 million iPhones in 2020 – from 1.7 million in 2018 – and research suggesting Pegasus targets Apple devices better than others (Android, for example) is worrying news for iPhone owners.
The iPhone maker said it was seeking “a permanent injunction to ban NSO Group from using any Apple software, services or devices”, and described the Israeli firm as “notorious hackers – amoral 21st century mercenaries who have created highly sophisticated cyber-surveillance machinery”.
The Pegasus scandal erupted earlier this year (ahead of the monsoon session of Parliament) after an international media consortium, including The Wire in India, said phone numbers of opposition leaders and journalists critical of the BJP were found on a database of potential hacking targets.
That list included Congress MP Rahul Gandhi, poll strategist Prashant Kishor, and a sitting Supreme Court judge, as well as current and former heads of national security agencies, among others.
The allegations triggered furious protests by the opposition and civil society activists, with ruckus and pandemonium in Parliament, and legal petitions filed calling for a full probe into the claims.
The government resisted calls for an investigation, insisting first there was “no substance” and then citing “national security” to tell the Supreme Court it could not file a detailed affidavit on this matter.
Last month the court said “a vague denial from the government is not sufficient” and ordered an inquiry led by a retired judge, with a report to be submitted in two months.
The court – which acknowledged potential limits, in the current context, to the right to privacy, also underlined the importance of those intrusions having to “stand constitutional scrutiny”. The court also said it would not set up an expert panel, saying it would “violate settled judicial principle against bias”.
The NSO Group, which has underlined the fact it sells its spyware only to national governments, has denied wrongdoing and said its software is meant for authorities fighting terrorism and other crimes.
“Pedophiles and terrorists can freely operate in technological safe-havens, and we provide governments lawful tools to fight it. NSO will continue to advocate for the truth,” the firm told AFP.
Apple’s suit isn’t the first by a Big Tech firm; in 2019 Facebook sued the NSO Group, accusing them of using WhatsApp to conduct cyberespionage on journalists, human rights activists and others.
In September Apple released a software patch for a weakness that allowed the NSO spyware to infect its devices even if the user did not click on or open the malicious message.
With input from AFP