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9th Circuit: Israeli company is not entitled to foreign sovereign immunity over malware claims

Courts Privacy/Cyber Risk & Data Security Ninth Circuit Appellate Of Interest to Non-US Persons State Issues Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act Sovereign Immunity

Courts

On November 8, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed a district court’s order denying a private Israeli company’s motion to dismiss claims based on foreign sovereign immunity. The Israeli company (defendant) designs and licenses surveillance technology to governments and government agencies for national security and law enforcement purposes. According to the opinion, the defendant markets and licenses a product that allows law enforcement and intelligence agencies to covertly intercept messages, take screenshots, or extract information such as a mobile device’s contacts or history. The plaintiffs (a messaging company and global social media company) sued the defendant claiming it sent malware through the messaging company’s server system to approximately 1,400 mobile devices to gather users’ information in violation of state and federal law, including the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act and the California Comprehensive Computer Data Access and Fraud Act. The defendant moved to dismiss, claiming foreign sovereign immunity protected it from the suit. The defendant further contended that even if the plaintiffs’ allegations were true, it was “acting as an agent of a foreign state, entitling it to ‘conduct-based immunity’—a common-law doctrine that protects foreign officials acting in their official capacity.” The district court disagreed, ruling that common-law foreign official immunity does not protect the defendant in this case because the defendant “failed to show that exercising jurisdiction over [the defendant] would serve to enforce a rule of law against a foreign state.”

Although the 9th Circuit agreed with the district court that the defendant, as a private company, is not entitled to immunity, the panel affirmed on separate grounds. The 9th Circuit based its determination instead on the fact that “the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act (FSIA or Act) occupies the field of foreign sovereign immunity as applied to entities and categorically forecloses extending immunity to any entity that falls outside the FSIA’s broad definition of ‘foreign state.’” Among other things, the 9th Circuit rejected the defendant’s claim that because governments use its technology it is entitled to the immunity extended to sovereigns. “Whatever [the defendant’s] government customers do with its technology and services does not render [the defendant] an ‘agency or instrumentality of a foreign state,’ as Congress has defined that term,” the appellate court wrote. In contrast to the district court, the 9th Circuit rejected the defendant’s argument that it could claim foreign sovereign immunity under common-law immunity doctrines that apply to foreign officials (i.e., natural persons), finding that “Congress [had] displaced common-law sovereign immunity doctrine as it relates to entities.”

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