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Leak Reportedly Exposes Global Abuse Of Cyber-Surveillance Weapon To Target Journalists, Activists And Politicians

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  • Media organizations investigated a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers from Israeli technology firm NSO Group that may be potential surveillance targets of the firm’s clients.
  • NSO Group manufactures spyware product Pegasus, which was reportedly used to surveil iPhone and Android devices belonging to journalists, lawyers, activists, and politicians, according to multiple outlets. 
  • “The Pegasus Project lays bare how NSO’s spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril,” Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said in a statement.
  • NSO Group disputed the allegations of the investigation and denied any wrongdoing.

Hacking software manufactured by an Israeli surveillance company was reportedly used to spy on journalists, activists, and lawyers, according to an investigation by several media organizations.

Paris media non-profit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International obtained a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers from Israeli technology firm NSO Group that the organization alleged were potential surveillance targets of the firm’s clients, some of which were repressive regimes, according to statements from the organizations.

An investigation into the list by 17 media organizations, including The Guardian and The Washington Post, revealed these targets purportedly included journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and politicians. The media organizations alleged that individuals on the list were potential targets of regimes using NSO spyware product Pegasus.

“The Pegasus Project lays bare how NSO’s spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril,” Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, said in the statement.

A forensic analysis of 37 smartphones that appeared on the leaked list revealed the presence of Pegasus, which enables users to remotely access data including messages, emails, calls and photos on iPhone and Android devices, according to the Guardian. The phones belonged to journalists working for the Associated Press, the WSJ, Financial Times and other media organizations, as well two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Post reported.

The organizations will be releasing the identities of those on the list in the coming days.

NSO questioned the reliability of the sources involved in the investigation as well the conclusions the organizations drew, firmly denying any involvement in alleged surveillance programs carried out by authoritarian regimes.

“Forbidden Stories repeatedly imputes human rights abuses – including alleged murder and torture – to NSO Group based on alleged conduct by NSO Group’s clients and unsupported logical leaps,” NSO lawyer Clare Locke said in a statement to media organizations.

“Their sources have supplied them with information which has no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims. In fact, these allegations are so outrageous and far from reality, that NSO is considering a defamation lawsuit,” the group announced on their website.

Pegasus spyware was installed on the phone of Hatice Cengiz, fiancee to Jamal Khashoggi, days after he was murdered by Saudi operatives, as well as on the phone of wife Hanan Elatr, Amnesty International alleged. The organizations also claimed to have identified over 180 journalists in 20 countries, including Azerbaijan, Hungary, India, and Morocco, who were targeted for surveillance with Pegasus between 2016 and June 2021.

Many of the countries identified are engaged in crackdowns against independent media, the organizations and outlets alleged.

NSO denied that its products were used in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but did not confirm nor deny the identity of its government customers, according to its statements. A spokesperson for the Hungarian government told the Guardian they were “not aware” of any data collection efforts using NSO products.

Pegasus had been specifically engineered to circumvent security protocols on Android and iPhone devices, according to the Post. The spyware is designed to bypass conventional security measures and access every bit of data on a particular device.

“Attacks like the ones described are highly sophisticated, cost millions of dollars to develop, often have a short shelf life and are used to target specific individuals,” Ivan Kristic, a security executive for Apple, told The Post.

NSO marketed the spyware as a tool for governments to combat terrorist and criminal activities, the company said in its statement.

The company claimed it conducted reviews of potential clients’ human rights records to ensure its products were not used to perpetrate abuses. NSO Chief Executive Shalev Hulio told The Post that the firm had previously terminated two contracts due to allegations the clients were using spyware to violate human rights, but did not identify the clients.

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