Spyware from the Israeli surveillance company was found on the cellphones of six Palestinian rights activists, according to a report.
Spyware from the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group was found on the cellphones of six Palestinian human rights activists, in the first known case of Palestinian activists being targeted by the military grade. Pegasus spyware.
The nonprofit Frontline Defenders announced its findings Monday in a joint technical report with Amnesty International and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which independently confirmed the results.
It is not clear who posted the NSO spyware, which secretly gives intruders access to everything a person stores and does on their cell phone, including real-time communications.
Three of the hacked Palestinians work for groups in civil society. The others do not, and want to remain anonymous, Frontline Defenders says.
Among those hacked is Ubai Aboudi, a 37-year-old economist and U.S. citizen who runs the Bisan Center for Research and Development in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. The group is one of six that were beaten terrorist names by Israel last month.
The Irish-based Frontline Defenders consider Israel the main suspect. The first two burglaries were identified shortly after Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz declared the six Palestinian civil society groups “terrorist” organizations.
Aboudi said he lost “any sense of security” by the “dehumanizing” hack of a phone that is by his side day and night and contains photos of his three children. He said his wife, the first three nights after hearing about the hack, “did not sleep on the idea of having such a deep intrusion into our privacy”.
He was particularly concerned about eavesdroppers carrying knowledge of his communications with foreign diplomats. The researchers’ investigation of Aboudi’s phone determined that it was infected by Pegasus in February.
The other two hacked Palestinians who agreed to be named are researcher Ghassan Halaika, of the Al-Haq Law Group, and lawyer Salah Hammouri of Addameer.
Israel has provided little public evidence to support the “terrorism” designation, which Palestinian groups say is aimed at drying up their funding and muzzling opposition to Israeli military rule.
Andrew Anderson, executive director at Frontline Defenders, said the NSO group could not be trusted to ensure that its spyware was not used illegally by its customers and said Israel should face international blame if it did not sue the company in the do not sting late.
“If the Israeli government refuses to act, it must have consequences in terms of regulating trade with Israel,” he told The Associated Press news agency.
Mohammed al-Maskati, the researcher who discovered the hacks, said he was first notified on October 16 by Halaika, whose phone was hacked in July 2020.
Asked about the allegations that its software was used against Palestinian activists, NSO Group said in a statement to the AP that it only sells to government agencies for use against “serious crime and terrorism”. It added that it is not familiar with the identities of those that governments decide to hack.
The company previously said the exported versions of Pegasus could not be used to hack Israeli phone numbers, but the report found four of the six hacked phones used SIM cards issued by Israeli telecommunications companies. It also said that its software could not be used to target US numbers.
NSO Group provoked outrage from law groups earlier this year an investigation International media have revealed that the firm’s Pegasus spyware has been used by security forces and authoritarian governments in several countries, with Israel accepting heat for lax surveillance of its digital surveillance industry.
The administration of US President Joe Biden last week blacklisted the NSO group and a lesser-known Israeli rival, Candiru, for developing and supplying spyware to foreign governments “who maliciously used these tools.”
The technology has been used against journalists, rights activists and political dissidents from Mexico to Saudi Arabia since 2015, according to organizations documenting the abuses.
Israel’s Ministry of Defense approves the export of spyware manufactured by NSO Group and other private Israeli companies recruiting from the country’s top cyber-capable military units. Critics say the process is opaque.