NSO Used Real People’s Location Data To Pitch Its Contact-Tracing Tech
NSO, a private intelligence company best known for developing and selling governments access to its Pegasus spyware, pitched its contact-tracing system earlier this year, dubbed Fleming, aimed at helping governments track the spread of COVID-19. Fleming is designed to allow governments to feed location data from cell phone companies to visualize and track the spread of the virus. NSO gave several news outlets each a demo of Fleming, which NSO says helps governments make public health decisions “without compromising individual privacy.” But in May, a security researcher told TechCrunch that he found an exposed database storing thousands of location data points used by NSO to demonstrate how Fleming works — the same demo seen by reporters weeks earlier. TechCrunch reported the apparent security lapse to NSO, which quickly secured the database, but said that the location data was “not based on real and genuine data.” NSO’s claim that the location data wasn’t real differed from reports in Israeli media, which said NSO had used phone location data obtained from advertising platforms, known as data brokers, to “train” the system. Academic and privacy expert Tehilla Shwartz Altshuler, who was also given a demo of Fleming, said NSO told her that the data was obtained from data brokers, which sell access to vast troves of aggregate location data collected from the apps installed on millions of phones.
NSO is currently embroiled in a lawsuit with Facebook-owned WhatsApp, which last year blamed NSO for exploiting an undisclosed vulnerability in WhatsApp to infect some 1,400 phones with Pegasus, including journalists and human rights defenders. NSO says it should be afforded legal immunity because it acts on behalf of governments.