Facebook and NSO Group: An Odd Couple or Squabbling Neighbors?

July 28, 2021

Late in 2019, The Adware Guru published “Facebook Sues NSO Group Spyware Maker Due to Exploitation of WhatsApp Vulnerability.” That write up stated:

The cause of [Facebook’s]  lawsuit was WhatsApp’s zero-day vulnerability, which Facebook claims was sold to the NSO Group, and then the company helped use the problem to attack human rights defenders, journalists, political dissidents, diplomats, and governmental officials. According to court documents, more than 1,400 people in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico suffered a total of 11 days from attacks. Facebook has already sent WhatsApp special messages to everyone affected.

In April 2020, Technadu published “The NSO Group Is Accusing Facebook of Having Tried to License Their Spyware.” That write up stated:

The ‘NSO Group’ is now turning the tables, claiming that they rejected Facebook’s proposal to license Pegasus because they only did it for governments and not private companies. In addition to that, they describe Facebook’s accusations as baseless and even accuse the social media company of failing to prepare the legal paperwork properly, which resulted in legislative procedure problems. NSO says Facebook didn’t have powerful methods to spy on iOS devices in the same way that they did with Android, and they felt like Pegasus could solve this problem for them. Facebook, on the other side, completely dismissed these statements by saying that these allegations had the sole purpose of distracting the court from the real facts.

Technadu added:

even if Facebook wasn’t trying to add Pegasus in Onavo for iOS, they are giving the NSO Group something to hold on to and make allegations that are at least seemingly realistic. At the very least, this development will complicate the legal process by much now.

Jump to the present. The Guardian’s story “Officials Who Are US Allies Among Targets of NSO Malware, Says WhatsApp Chief” reported on July 24, 2021:

Cathcart said that he saw parallels between the attack against WhatsApp users in 2019 – which is now the subject of a lawsuit brought by WhatsApp against NSO – and reports about a massive data leak that are at the centre of the Pegasus project… When WhatsApp says it believes its users were “targeted”, it means the company has evidence that an NSO server attempted to install malware on a user’s device.

The Guardian story includes this statement from the PR savvy NSO Group:

An NSO spokesperson said: “We are doing our best to help creating a safer world. Does Mr Cathcart have other alternatives that enable law enforcement and intelligence agencies to legally detect and prevent malicious acts of pedophiles, terrorists and criminals using end-to-end encryption platforms? If so, we would be happy to hear.”

Are Facebook’s statements credible? Is NSO Group’s version believable? Are these two behaving like the characters in Neil Simon’s “Odd Couple” or like the characters in the 1981 film “Neighbors”? Does each firm have something the other needs?

Stephen E Arnold, July 28, 2021


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