NSO Group, the controversial Israeli technology company whose spyware has allegedly been used to hack the phones of journalists, human rights activists and Jeff Bezos, wants to help governments track the spread of Covid-19.

Its new software maps the locations and movements of those infected with Covid-19, allowing authorities to trace who that person came into contact with and prevent them from spreading the disease further.

NSO Group says its software will work best if a government gets permission from local mobile phone operators to use the records of every subscriber in the country.

In software demonstrations to media, including Sky News, the BBC and Vice, the normally secretive company said individuals will be anonymous on the platform. However, it would, in theory, be possible to re-identify individuals if a government kept a separate correlation table.

An NSO engineer told the BBC that the coronavirus tracking software could be used to predict the next likely cluster of cases and determine where ventilators should be sent next.

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The surveillance software-maker claims to be in talks with governments around the world about using its software to track the coronavirus, but it is unclear if it has been in contact with the British government.

From spyware to coronavirus tracker

Its coronavirus tacking software is not connected with Pegasus, the NSO spyware that made headlines in May 2019 after the Financial Times revealed the tool could gain access to a target’s mobile phone via the WhatsApp chat app.

NSO Group now faces a lawsuit from Facebook, the owner of WhatsApp. NSO Group denies allegations that it hacked WhatsApp and strongly denies allegations that its spyware has been sold to governments who then used it to target journalists and human rights activists.

In another lawsuit, NSO Group is accused of supplying its Pegasus software to the Saudi government. It is then alleged that the Saudi government used NSO Group’s software to spy on the journalist Jamal Khashoggi before his murder – an accusation that NSO also denies.

NSO Group has also “unequivocally” denied its software was used by the Saudi government to steal intimate pictures from the mobile of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos after a UN investigation said the “intrusion likely was undertaken through the use of a prominent spyware product identified in other Saudi surveillance cases, such as the NSO Group’s Pegasus-3 malware”.

Privacy experts raise concerns

Given the allegations, ongoing lawsuit and shadow hanging over NSO Group, should the UK and other governments consider using its coronavirus tracking software to help combat the pandemic?

Privacy experts are not convinced.

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“NSO Group claiming their notorious spyware can ‘solve’ pandemics is like a gun manufacturer saying ‘hey our sniper rifle makes an excellent replacement for a pair of opera glasses’,” tweeted John Scott Railton of the Toronto-based privacy watchdog Citizen Lab, which has been tracking incidents where Pegasus was used to stalk activists and journalists.

Darren Wray, co-founder & CTO at data privacy firm Guardum told Verdict that any EU government should consider whether its use falls foul of GDPR.

He added that while the current health situation – which has seen more than a million confirmed cases of Covid-19 globally – may put pressure on using tracking tools, governments should be wary.

“With NSO’s background and history, any government or organisation would likely struggle to defend their decision to use this company should there be a breach or misuse of this data in the future.”

In a blog post discussing the use of tracking tools during the pandemic, Elizabeth M Renieris, a Fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society, questioned whether such tools would actually make a difference.

“What if it just doesn’t work in some contexts? We especially have to ask these questions where some experimental methods of contact tracing are being entrusted to large for-profit tech companies,” she wrote.

NSO Group is not collecting location data from its coronavirus tracking software and instead provides the software to governments. But that also comes with its own risks.

This week historian and author Yuval Noah Harari cautioned that surveillance apps deployed to combat the pandemic – although not NSO Group specifically – risk empowering authoritarian regimes.

Verdict approached NSO Group for comment but did not receive a reply at the time of publication.


Read more: NSO Group lawsuit exposes uncomfortable truth of 21st-century espionage