JERUSALEM, Israel – Apple has sued the Israeli hacker-for-hire company NSO Group for allegedly targeting users with its sophisticated spyware.
The lawsuit, filed Tuesday in a federal California court, says NSO Group engaged in “concerted efforts in 2021 to target and attack Apple customers, Apple products and servers and Apple through dangerous malware and spyware.” The tech giant is seeking to bar NSO Group from using Apple products.
Apple specifically took issue with NSO Group’s spyware called “Pegasus.” The surveillance software works by installing itself on a device without the user’s knowledge or any action from the user. Security researchers say Pegasus transforms the iPhone into a silent spying device with access to the user’s data, messages, microphone and camera.
NSO Group has said law enforcement and government intelligence agencies use Pegasus to fight terrorism and other bad actors. Apple’s lawsuit alleges that NSO Group’s technology has been used to target US citizens.
NSO Group “did not breach data contained on Apple’s servers, but did abuse Apple’s services and servers to perpetrate attacks,” Apple’s complaint states.
Apple has previously issued security updates to fight surveillance technology. Now, the company is asking the justice system to intervene.
“State-sponsored actors like the NSO Group spend millions of dollars on sophisticated surveillance technologies without effective accountability. That needs to change,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s senior vice president of software engineering.
NSO Group did not specifically address Apple’s allegations but insisted in a statement that its technology helps governments save lives.
“Pedophiles and terrorists can freely operate in technological safe-havens, and we provide governments the lawful tools to fight it. NSO group will continue to advocate for the truth,” the company said in a statement.
For years, critics and privacy advocates have accused NSO Group and similar companies of selling its products to governments that abuse human rights. NSO Group denies those allegations.
Apple’s lawsuit is the latest blow to the Israeli company after it was blacklisted this month by the US Commerce Department for allegedly misusing its spyware.
The department said NSO Group “developed and supplied spyware to foreign governments that used this tool to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers.” The State Department said the decision to blacklist the company is part of the Biden administration’s goal to stop “the proliferation and misuse of digital tools used for repression.”
Facebook is also currently suing NSO Group for allegedly targeting the globally popular encrypted WhatsApp messaging app. A US federal appeals court issued a ruling this month rejecting an effort by NSO Group to have the lawsuit thrown out.
“Very glad to see Apple join the effort to hold spyware companies accountable,” Will Cathcart, the head of WhatsApp, said Tuesday in a tweet. “We’ve long called for industry action against NSO and today’s lawsuit shows that technology providers are united in fighting spyware and ensuring more security for our users.”
Apple announced Tuesday that it was donating $10 million, as well as any damages won in the NSO Group lawsuit, to cybersurveillance researchers and advocates.