ISRAELI spyware targeted phones belonging to 37 activists and journalists – including two women close to Jamal Khashoggi, according to a new report.
Activists, journalists and politicians around the world were allegedly targeted for hacking via military-grade spyware developed by private Israeli firm Pegasus, reports said on Sunday.
The leak involved 50,000 phone numbers believed to have been identified as people of interest by clients of Israel’s NSO group – a leader in the growing and largely unregulated private spyware industry – since 2016.
Among the numbers found on the list were two belonging to women close to Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by a Saudi hit squad in 2018, the investigation found.
Analysis suggests the spy tool was used by Saudi Arabia and the UAE to target the phones of close associates of Khashoggi in the months after his death, The Guardian reports.
The Turkish prosecutor investigating the Washington Post journalist’s death was also a candidate for targeting, the data leak suggests.
The list also included the number of a Mexican freelance journalist who was later murdered at a car wash.
His phone was never found and it was not clear if it had been hacked.
SPANNING 50 COUNTRIES
The reporters were able to identify more than 1,000 people spanning more than 50 countries on the list.
The numbers are concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens, the investigation found.
The analysis of the data found at least 10 governments – believed to be NSO clients – were entering numbers into a system, including Azerbaijan, Mexico, India and the UAE.
Among the numbers on the list are journalists for media organizations around the world including Agence France-Presse, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, France 24, Radio Free Europe, Mediapart, El País, the Associated Press, Le Monde, Bloomberg, the Economist, Reuters and Voice of America, the Guardian said.
The Associated Press’ director of media relations, Lauren Easton, said the company is “deeply troubled to learn that two AP journalists, along with journalists from many news organizations, are among those who may have been targeted by Pegasus spyware”.
She said AP has taken steps to ensure the security of its journalists’ devices.
The alleged use of the software to hack the phones of Al-Jazeera reporters and a Moroccan journalist has been reported previously by Citizen Lab – a research center at the University of Toronto, and Amnesty International.
“The number of journalists identified as targets vividly illustrates how Pegasus is used as a tool to intimidate critical media,” Agnes Callamard, Amnesty’s secretary-general, said.
“It is about controlling public narrative, resisting scrutiny, and suppressing any dissenting voice.”
HEADS OF STATE TARGETED
The Washington Post said numbers on the list also belonged to heads of state and prime ministers, members of Arab royal families, diplomats and politicians, activists and business executives.
The Guardian said the investigation suggests “widespread and continuing abuse” of Pegasus, which NSO said is intended for use against criminals and terrorists.
But the alleged targeting of the 37 smartphones would appear to conflict with the stated purpose of NSO’s licensing of the Pegasus spyware, reports said.
Pegasus infiltrates phones to vacuum up personal and location data and surreptitiously control the smartphone’s microphones and cameras.
In the case of journalists, it lets hackers spy on reporters’ communications with sources.
The Israeli defence minister is said to closely regulate NSO, granting individual export licences before its surveillance technology can be sold to a new country.
NSO called the allegations “exaggerated and baseless”, but said it would “continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action”.
NSO also told The Verge on Sunday that it denied the claims in the report, saying it was “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources”.
Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media non-profit organization, initially had access to the leak, which they shared with media organizations.
In December, Citizen Lab said dozens of journalists at Al-Jazeera had their mobile communications intercepted by sophisticated electronic surveillance.