deflated Pegasus balloon

Pegasus spyware creator ordered to reveal code used to spy on WhatsApp users

A California federal judge has ordered spyware maker NSO Group to hand over the code for Pegasus and other spyware products that were used to spy on WhatsApp users.

Meta-owned WhatsApp has been fighting NSO in court since 2019, after Pegasus was allegedly used against 1,400 WhatsApp users over the period of two weeks. During this time, NSO Group gained access to the users’ sensitive data, including encrypted messages.

NSO Group justifies the use of Pegasus by saying it’s a beneficial tool for investigating and preventing terrorist attacks and maintaining the safety of the public. However, the company also says it recognizes that some customers might abuse the abilities of the software for other purposes.

Earlier in the court case, NSO Group argued it should be recognized as a foreign government agent and, therefore, be entitled to immunity under US law limiting lawsuits against foreign countries. NSO Group is closely regulated by the Israeli ministry of defense, which reviews and has to approve the sale of all licenses to foreign governments or entities. This is likely also the reason why NSO Group claimed to be excused of all its discovery obligations in the case, due to various US and Israeli restrictions.

NSO Group argued it should only be required to hand over information about Pegasus’ installation layer, but this was denied by the court. The judge ordered NSO Group to provide the plaintiffs with the knowledge needed to understand how the relevant spyware performs the functions of accessing and extracting data.

WhatsApp said that the decision is a major victory in its mission to defend its users against cyberattacks. This may be true if a better understanding of how the spyware works leads to improvements that can thwart future abuse.

However, this is no reason to assume that this will bring an end to NSO Group’s capabilities or willingness to spy on WhatsApp users. NSO Group doesn’t have to disclose the identity of its clients and it only has to produce information concerning the full functionality of the relevant spyware, specifically for a period of one year before the alleged attack to one year after the alleged attacks, which means from April 29, 2018 to May 10, 2020. Things have developed since then.

The US sanctioned NSO Group in 2021 for developing and supplying cyber weapons to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics, and embassy workers.

After that period we saw many zero-day vulnerabilities brought to light in browsers and other online applications very likely used by the NSO to compromise mobile devices.

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Pieter Arntz

Malware Intelligence Researcher

Was a Microsoft MVP in consumer security for 12 years running. Can speak four languages. Smells of rich mahogany and leather-bound books.