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A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, August 24, 2021. © 2021 AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner, File

(Brussels) – The European Union should adopt targeted sanctions against NSO Group, the Israel-based company that produces spyware, 88 human rights groups and independent experts said today in a letter to the EU foreign policy chief and foreign ministers of EU states. The call follows years of credible reporting that the group’s Pegasus spyware, which turns an infected phone into a portable surveillance tool, has assisted governments in human rights abuses.

“There is overwhelming evidence that Pegasus spyware has been repeatedly used by abusive governments to clamp down on peaceful human rights defenders, activists and perceived critics,” said Deborah Brown, senior digital rights researcher and advocate at Human Rights Watch. “The EU should immediately sanction NSO Group and ban any use of its technologies.”

In November 2021, Front Line Defenders, which protects human rights defenders at risk, revealed that NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was used to hack the devices of six Palestinian human rights activists – the latest in a growing series of reports about human rights abuses linked to the use of technology developed by the Israel-based company. In July, the Pegasus Project consortium, a collaboration of media organizations coordinated by Forbidden Stories with the technical support of Amnesty International, exposed that Pegasus software had been used to infiltrate the devices of activists, journalists, and opposition figures in a number of countries, including in the EU. In August, the Citizen Lab, a Canadian academic research center, identified nine Bahraini activists whose iPhones had been successfully hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.

The company has repeatedly denied allegations that Pegasus has been used to target human rights defenders, journalists, and dissidents. But none of the Pegasus Project partners or groups that revealed the hacking of Palestinians have retracted their reporting. In fact, additional independent reporting and investigations from authorities corroborated the Pegasus Project's findings.  

On November 3, the US Department of Commerce added NSO Group to its trade restriction list (Entity List), for “acting contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the United States.” But the measure, which prohibits the export from the US to NSO Group of any type of hardware or software without a special license from the US Commerce Department, is limited.  

The EU should go a step further, the groups and experts said, putting NSO on its global human rights sanctions list and taking all appropriate action to prohibit the sale, transfer, export, import, and use of NSO Group technologies, as well as the provision of services that support NSO Group's Group’s products, until adequate human rights safeguards are in place.

“The EU should unequivocally close its doors to business with NSO Group,” Brown said. “Targeted sanctions are necessary to that end, and to add to growing international pressure against the company and the out-of-control spyware industry.”


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