Pegasus, the spyware program of Israeli company NSO Group, has been used to hack dozens of smartphones of journalists, human rights activists, businesspeople, and even of the fiancée of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi Arabian journalist who was murdered in Turkey on the orders of the Saudi Arabian crown prince, according to an investigative report published yesterday evening by 17 news organizations, among them "The Guardian", "Le Monde", and "The Washington Post". The report is based on leaked records containing more than 50,000 telephone numbers.
In the global investigation, which was led by the Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International organizations, journalists managed to identify more than 1,000 people in fifty countries believed to have been selected by governments that are clients of NSO. The list contains the names of 189 journalists, more than 600 politicians and government officials, at least 65 business managers, 85 human rights activists, and several government ministers and heads of government.
Amnesty reported that its investigators found that the Pegasus spyware, NSO's flagship product, was successfully installed on the telephone belonging to Khashoggi's fiancée Hatice Cengiz just four days after Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The telephone number of "The Financial Times" editor Roula Khalaf was also identified among the records, although it is not clear at this stage whether her telephone was hacked.
According to the report, journalists who investigated the leaked telephone numbers have so far reached a count of ten governments that were customers of NSO - Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Azerbaijan, Rwanda, Hungary, India, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico. According to the investigation, Mexico has 15,000 telephone numbers on the list and Morocco and the UAE tens of thousands each. About a thousand numbers belong to European citizens.
A series of affairs
NSO, which was founded in 2010, produces offensive cyber products, the best known of which is Pegasus. Pegasus makes it possible to break into mobile telephones and computers, and to listen to them without their owners knowing. NSO exports its software under an arms trading license awarded to it by the Israeli Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and does so legally.
In recent years, NSO's name has been linked to a series of affairs, in which it was revealed that its software had apparently been used to spy on journalists, human rights activists, and opponents of repressive regimes such as those of Mexico and Saudi Arabia. Israeli law on arms exports makes no reference to a ban on arms sales to countries that infringe human rights. It allows arms sales to any state agency concerned with fighting terrorism.
"The number of journalists identified as targets vividly illustrates how Pegasus is used as a tool to intimidate critical media. It is about controlling public narrative, resisting scrutiny, and suppressing any dissenting voice," said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
Over the years, NSO has denied involvement in the various affairs, and has claimed that it Is not responsible for breaches of human rights carried out using its software, on the grounds that it only provides a license and is not involved in the way the software is used. MSO said that its spyware is used only to monitor terrorists and other criminals. Two years ago, NSO said that it had adapted its activity to the United Nations' guidelines on human rights.
This time too, according to the various newspaper reports, NSO denied the report's findings, and claimed that the investigation was all unsubstantiated speculation based on misleading interpretation of the data leaked from basic, accessible and overt sources of information, and that the list of 50,000 telephone numbers that was published was "exaggerated".
NSO stated to the Israeli press in response to the report: "This is a false report based on mistaken assumptions in the context of a well-organized and orchestrated campaign by known interested parties. The company is considering its legal steps in the face of the imaginary claims presented in the report. We stress that the company's products are sold only to intelligence and law enforcement agencies as part of the war against terror and serious crime around the world.
"The company vigorously denies mistaken claims that appear in this report, some of which are based on unsubstantiated speculation that raises doubts as to the reliability of the source and the basis of the entire report. In that context we make clear: NSO does not operate the systems that it sells to government customers. Nor does it have access to information about the customers' targets. The State of Israel has no access to NSO's systems, and they are not approved for use for Israeli or American telephone numbers. In addition, NSO has declared in the past that its technology had no connection to the terrible murder of Jamal Khashoggi. We have investigated this claim in the past and it has no evidence to support it. NSO sells its products only to approved governments in a process that we recently described in our transparency report.
"The fact is that the company's technology prevents terrorism, pedophilia, and drugs trafficking, and even assist in tracing people who have disappeared, and in rescue operations. Simply put, this is a company that saves lives. Nevertheless , NSO will continued to investigate any claim of abuse of its system, and will take appropriate steps, including the shutting down of customers' systems if the need arises, which is something we have done many times in the past."
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on July 19, 2021
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