Microsoft has asked the incoming Biden administration to intervene in a high-profile legal case involving WhatsApp and NSO Group, the Israeli spyware firm that, according to the American software company, was helping to proliferate cyber weapons.
Comparing NSO Group to 21st century mercenaries, Microsoft President Brad Smith stated that the rise of private companies designing cybersecurity attacks meant that an increasing number of nation-states could now deploy cyberattacks, including against journalists and human rights activists.
“[This industry] it generates a proliferation of cyberattacks against other governments that have the money but not the people to create their own weapons. In short, it adds another significant element to the cybersecurity threat landscape, ”Smith said.
The comments represented the first time that a major US company, other than WhatsApp, has spoken out against the use of private hacking companies by nation-states, an issue that for years has been seen primarily as a cause for concern. for journalists, human rights. activists and other activists.
Smith specifically cited litigation in the US between NSO Group and WhatsApp, the popular messaging app that alleged in a US court that NSO Group spyware, called Pegasus, was used to target 1,400 of your users for a period of two weeks in 2019.
About 100 of the targets were members of civil society, including journalists, diplomats, senior government officials and human rights activists, WhatsApp claimed.
NSO Group has denied any involvement in the alleged attacks against civil society. The company has said that its government customers control how its software is used and that its products should only be used to help law enforcement officials track down terrorists and criminals. He has said he is investigating all allegations of abuse.
NSO Group declined to comment on Smith’s comments.
The Israeli firm has argued in US litigation that it is, in effect, immune to US anti-piracy law because it acts on behalf of foreign governments. While a judge who ruled in the case has largely dismissed the defense, NSO has appealed that decision to a higher court of appeals.
Smith said Microsoft was joining with other technology companies to “oppose this interpretation.” He is expected to do so formally in an amicus brief.
“The Biden / Harris administration should have a similar view,” Smith said.
He added that he considered the NSO Group’s “perplexing” legal approach made clear that national laws should “clearly and firmly” prohibit companies from allowing their software to help governments engage in “illegal and offensive cyberattacks and investors finance them. “
He compared the proliferation of cyber weapons to other “socially harmful activities” such as human trafficking, narcotics or terrorism. As much as governments make sure airlines don’t carry drugs or investors don’t fund activity, Smith said they need to make sure “US and other investors don’t consciously fuel the growth of this type of activity.”
A source in the technology industry suggested that Microsoft’s decision to join the fray was “very important”, not only because of Smith’s reputation, but because it was a “massive sign” that the technology industry is not being taken. it was simply going to be “on the sidelines” amid mounting evidence of people being targeted by spyware.
“That has all kinds of implications for the people who work for these spyware companies. They may start to think twice that they will not be welcome in companies like Microsoft in the future, ”the person said.
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