Facebook tried to buy NSO Group's Pegasus spyware to monitor iOS users

Social network wanted to integrate surveillance tech into its Onavo Protect app

Facebook once tried to buy the Israeli spyware group NSO Group it’s suing due to its alleged involvement in a massive WhatsApp hack last year, documents from an ongoing court case show. 

NSO Group, which develops surveillance tools for government agencies, was accused of developing the Pegasus spyware tool that was at the heart of a significant attack against WhatsApp between April and May 2019.

Advertisement - Article continues below

The incident saw the communications and location data of 1,400 users, including high-profile targets like government and military officials, intercepted and tracked through the exploitation of a flaw in the platform.

Documents from the lawsuit, however, reveal the social network approached NSO Group in 2017 in order to use the very same technology to more effectively monitor iOS users.

Facebook had also hoped to embed this tool into the Onavo Protect app, developed by the Israeli security firm Onavo which it purchased in 2013. 

Onavo, some months after the attempted purchase of NSO Group, found itself in the middle of a war between Apple and Facebook centring on privacy and the monitoring of iOS users.

Onavo Protect, a virtual private network (VPN) app widely regarded as spyware, tracked the usage of all apps installed on iOS devices, which contravened Apple’s privacy rules after these were revamped in 2018.

Advertisement - Article continues below

Facebook voluntarily delisted the app following discussions between the two companies and was also removed from the Google Play Store.

Advertisement - Article continues below

Then, in early 2019, Apple took the drastic measure of stripping Facebook of its development license altogether after the firm was found to be marketing its newly-developed Research app, which bore staggering similarities with Onavo Protect, to children.

The attempted acquisition of NSO Group - and effort to seize Pegasus - arose because Facebook was concerned that its method for gathering user data through Onavo Protect was less effective on iOS devices than Android devices.

The connection between NSO Group and Onavo, as well as Facebook’s ambitions to use the Pegasus technology to render iOS tracking far more potent, was hidden until it was revealed in the court documents.

When the acquisition attempt failed, Facebook even approached NSO Group to solicit its services through Pegasus technology to further monitor Onavo Protect users, for a per-user fee to be paid monthly.

This approach was also rejected, as NSO Group only solicits its technology to government agencies, security services and law enforcement agencies. 

Employees from NSO Group, incidentally, sued Facebook last November for allegedly blocking their private WhatsApp accounts, as well as the Facebook and Instagram accounts of their friends and family members.

Featured Resources

The case for a marketing content hub

Transform your digital marketing to deliver customer expectations

Download now

Fast, flexible and compliant e-signatures for global businesses

Be at the forefront of digital transformation with electronic signatures

Download now

Why CEOS should care about the move to SAP S/4HANA

And how they can accelerate business value

Download now

IT faces new security challenges in the wake of COVID-19

Beat the crisis by learning how to secure your network

Download now


social media

Facebook to start verifying identities of suspicious user accounts

29 May 2020
social media

Social media and the death of truth

29 May 2020
social media

Zuckerberg responds to Trump vs. Twitter

28 May 2020
social media

Trump’s leaked executive order targets social media companies

28 May 2020

Most Popular

Microsoft Windows

Microsoft warns users not to install Windows 10's May update

28 May 2020
data breaches

EasyJet faces class-action lawsuit over data breach

26 May 2020
cyber security

Microsoft bans Trend Micro driver from Windows 10 for "cheating" hardware tests

27 May 2020