AWS gave Parler a chance, won't say if it talked to NSO before axing spyware biz's backend systems

How do you feel about your cloud now?


Opinion Amnesty International's allegations this week that NSO Group's spyware products have been widely abused have rightly sparked a debate about the ethics of digital surveillance.

Amazon Web Services' contribution to that debate, to date, is the following brief statement: "When we learned of this activity, we acted quickly to shut down the relevant infrastructure and accounts."

Indeed, AWS on Monday axed the backend systems of NSO that were hosted in its cloud. The plug was pulled in time for Tuesday's revelation from Amnesty that "the phone numbers for 14 heads of state, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistan’s Imran Khan and South Africa’s Cyril Ramaphosa, as well as hundreds of government officials, were selected as people of interest by clients" of NSO Group.

Amazon's swift action against NSO contrasts starkly with its handling of Parler, a social network favored by far-right netizens.

As The Register reported in January 2021, and AWS stated in a court filing, Parler and AWS had quite a back and forth over how the app was being used to spread violent and hateful content in the context of the failed insurrection at the US Capitol.

AWS eventually concluded that Parler could not meet Amazon's terms of service, which required the timely removal of prohibited content, and booted the company from its cloud. In short, AWS felt Parler was incapable of effectively moderating its users and removing posts identified as harmful, and so switched off the lights.

I asked AWS if it had engaged in any dialog with the NSO Group before shutting down "the relevant infrastructure and accounts."

The web titan declined to comment.

Interestingly, AWS also suggested to journalists that they consider the wider issue of spyware ethics rather than focusing on its role in the affair.

That's a reasonable position. The issue is not that cloud resources can be used for evil – any computer can be misused. That some AWS customers wind up using its computers to get up to no good is pretty much expected given Amazon's scale.

But the difference in the company's responses to Parler and NSO group is, at the very least, concerning.

The overwhelming majority of Reg readers will likely never push the boundaries of AWS's terms and conditions. But AWS's recent comments show that if you do, its response could be inconsistent. Depending on who you are, the plug could be pulled immediately, or after some attempt at dialog.

Is that good enough for mission-critical operations? Only you, dear readers, can decide.

For what it's worth, The Register understands that two of the other clouds named by Amnesty as providers of NSO infrastructure – Linode and Digital Ocean – have not stopped working with NSO Group. We're awaiting comment from OVH, another NSO cloud provider named by Amnesty. ®

PS: If you're worried your devices may have been targeted by or infected with NSO's Pegasus spyware, Amnesty has non-trivial technical details on detecting a compromise here.

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