Phones belonging to at least six human rights activists, including a French and American citizen working in the occupied West Bank, have been tainted by military-grade spyware made by Israel’s NSO group, a rights group said .
The hacks were discovered on October 16, according to Front Line Defenders, a Dublin-based rights group that helped train one of the organizations in digital security. The University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which monitors the use of Pegasus software worldwide, also confirmed the hacks.
This is the first known case of the software being found on the phones of Palestinian activists. The spyware, which was found on the phones of dozens of journalists and civil society activists around the world, reflects a phone’s encrypted messages and turns it into a surveillance device by turning on the microphones and camera.
Three of the rights activists whose phones were hacked worked for groups that received at least some funding from the EU, or EU states. The other three activists refused to be identified in public.
Three days after the hacks were discovered by security researchers, but before they became widely known, Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who regulates both the NSO group and the occupied West Bank, designated six EU-backed human rights groups as terrorists in support of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The PFLP is a secular, left-wing Palestinian faction with a military wing. The entire group has been identified as terrorists by the US, the EU and Israel. All six legal groups deny any ties to the PFLP, and the EU, UN and US have expressed surprise at the designation and called for Israel to provide more evidence.
Ubai al-Aboudi, director of the Ramallah-based Bisan Center for Research and Development, whose phone was among those hacked, said the timing of the designation raised serious concerns.
“I think it is very suspicious that only days later [a small group of people] “found out that Pegasus is being used against Palestinian human rights defenders, we were suddenly declared terrorists,” he said. “This [spyware] was supposed to be used only against terrorists, and suddenly the Israeli government declares us terrorists. It is to put the wagon in front of the horse. ”
Since Gantz’s appointment, the Israeli Foreign Ministry has shared a 73-page dossier with European diplomats summarizing an investigation into civil society groups. Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney told Israeli media he was not convinced by the evidence.
The EU has said that previous Israeli “allegations of misuse of EU funds with regard to certain Palestinian civil society partners have not been substantiated”.
The dossier, viewed by the Financial Times, refers to testimony from two workers who were fired from another organization for financial misconduct. The Israeli Ministry of Defense and a Gantz spokesman did not respond to requests for comment on the alleged burglary.
NSO said: “Due to contractual and national security considerations, we cannot confirm or deny the identity of our government clients.” It added that the software is only authorized for use in “defending the public against serious crime and terrorism”.
NSO officials have repeatedly said that its technology cannot be used to hack Israeli phone numbers without the permission of the Israeli government. Israel also has considerable control over how phones operate under the Palestinian land code, which limits data to 3G in the West Bank and 2G in the Gaza Strip.
Al-Aboudi expressed concern that his phone had been tampered with to make him look guilty. “A program that is so intrusive, it can also be used to create false evidence,” al-Aboudi said. Aboudi is a US citizen and said his talks with US diplomats could have been compromised.
Ron Deibert, director of Citizen Lab, said Aboudi’s fears were well-founded. “When a device is commandeered, you can not rule out the possibility that false incriminating evidence has been planted on it,” he said. “You have total control over that device – you can do whatever you want with it.”
The Israeli government on Sunday took further steps that would allow the Israeli army to close the rights groups, arrest their workers and detain them without charge.
The Israeli army, which has authority over the West Bank, said it had added five of the six groups – one was already banned – to its own blacklist. It said it had acted after being “presented with abundant, diverse and reliable information indicating that these organizations represent a wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terrorist group”.