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Judge tosses Khashoggi widow’s lawsuit against NSO Group

A federal judge on Thursday threw out a lawsuit filed by the widow of the slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi, saying she failed to establish that her allegations of phone hacking by the Israeli company NSO Group were tied to the Virginia jurisdiction where the lawsuit was filed.

Hanan Elatr had alleged that two of her phones were hacked immediately prior to her moving into the Virginia apartment of Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who was killed by the Saudi Arabian government when he attended a meeting in the country’s Turkish embassy.

Her claim was backed by a forensic analysis from Citizen Lab, a digital research center at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

The spyware was used to monitor her and Khashoggi, Elatr said, citing the journalist’s strong criticism of Saudi Arabia which was published consistently in the Washington Post.

NSO Group’s tool, Pegasus, can turn on phone cameras and microphones as well as extract data without users knowing.

Judge Leonie Brinkema rejected a claim from NSO Group that the suit constituted an “attempted end-run around the foreign sovereign immunity of Saudi Arabia and the UAE” since NSO Group is by definition a private corporation whose spyware is used by governments.

In her decision Brinkema made clear that it was the jurisdictional issue that determined her ruling.

“Although plaintiff presents a compelling description of her loss from the alleged conduct of defendants, the Court must nevertheless evaluate the issue of jurisdiction under established legal principles, which lead the court to conclude that it does not have personal jurisdiction over defendants,” the judge’s opinion said.

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Suzanne Smalley

Suzanne Smalley

Suzanne Smalley is a reporter covering privacy, disinformation and cybersecurity policy for The Record. She was previously a cybersecurity reporter at CyberScoop and Reuters. Earlier in her career Suzanne covered the Boston Police Department for the Boston Globe and two presidential campaign cycles for Newsweek. She lives in Washington with her husband and three children.