Gavel (illustration)
Gavel (illustration)iStock

Amnesty International on Thursday took Israel's defense ministry to court, as the rights group seeks to have the export license of spyware firm NSO Group revoked over hacking allegations.

The legal battle is the latest to face the Israeli company, which is being sued in the United States by messaging service WhatsApp over alleged cyber-espionage on human rights activists and others.

NSO Group produces Pegasus, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target's cellphone camera and microphone and access data on it, effectively turning the phone into a pocket spy.

Amnesty claims the company's technology was used against one of its staff members in an "earthquake" move, the organisation's lawyer Eitay Mack said ahead of the hearing.

"By trying to attack an Amnesty International staff worker, it's a message to all human rights activists around the world: you are also a target," he said.

The ministry oversees any defense-related exports from Israel and Amnesty is seeking to have NSO Group's export licence revoked and more broadly promote greater oversight.

Thursday's hearing began with a discussion on whether the case would be heard behind closed doors as requested by the defense ministry.

Judge Rachel Barkai backed the government's arguments that an open hearing could be harmful and NSO may in presenting its arguments divulge state secrets.

Barkai said the "real risk" of an open hearing "to the security of the state and its foreign relations" led her to rule the case must be heard privately.

But the judge said the court may release some details of the hearing once the case is closed, with a decision on the export licence expected in a few days.

Amnesty spokesman Gil Naveh said he was "disappointed" with the judge's decision, describing a closed hearing as "harmful to the image of Israeli democracy".

"There is one issue that needs to be clarified -- which hostile government attacked Amnesty International's employee," he added.

"We need the court to find out whether the ministry of defense did all it can to prevent that attack."

There was no comment from the defense ministry's spokesperson or NSO Group representatives at court.

NSO Group has been adamant that it only licenses its software to governments for "fighting crime and terror" and that it investigates credible allegations of misuse.

However, the firm has been in the headlines since 2016 when researchers accused it of helping spy on an activist in the United Arab Emirates.

In the separate case filed in a California court in October, WhatsApp accused NSO Group of trying to infect approximately 1,400 "target devices" with malicious software to steal valuable information from those using the messaging app.

Founded in 2010 by Israelis Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, NSO Group is based in the Israeli seaside hi-tech hub of Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. It says it employs 600 people in Israel and around the world.