Investigation claims spyware was used to hack journalists, activists and leaders

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Spyware licensed from Israeli company NSO Group was used to target smartphones belonging to 37 journalists, human rights activists and other public figures, according to an investigation released on Sunday.

The report elicited a swift response from NSO, who claimed it was “full of flawed assumptions and unsubstantiated theories.”

Conducted by the nonprofit journalism association Forbidden Stories and 17 media partners, the survey was based on a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers linked to people who had allegedly been screened for possible surveillance by clients of NSO since 2016, the group said.

Forbidden Stories said Pegasus, a software product that NSO sells to government agencies, has been “widely misused” by clients to target lawyers, academics and other professionals in countries like India, Mexico and France.

Forensic analysis by Amnesty International found 37 phones were infected or attempted to be infected with NSO spyware, according to the human rights group, which released a separate report on its methodology.

The FT has not been able to independently verify the allegations reported by the media consortium.

The victims of the attacks are said to be Siddharth Varadarajan, founder of the Indian news site The Wire, and Szabolcs Panyi, investigative journalist in Hungary for the non-profit journalism organization Direkt36, according to Forbidden Stories.

Bill Marczak, principal researcher at Citizen Lab, said the Canadian watchdog group had examined four of the phones and confirmed with “great confidence” that the devices had been targeted with the Pegasus software. Marczak said Citizen Lab peer reviewed Amnesty’s methodology and found it “sound”.

Consortium partners have vowed to reveal the names of others on the larger list of suspected surveillance targets in the coming days. That list included business executives, ministers, presidents and prime ministers, according to The Guardian newspaper., one of the media partners in the survey.

A spokesperson for NSO said the company would “continue to investigate all credible allegations of abuse” while denying what it claimed to be “false allegations” in the Forbidden Stories report.

“NSO Group has good reason to believe that the claims made by anonymous sources to Forbidden Stories are based on a misleading interpretation of data from accessible and overt basic information, such as HLR research services, which did not no impact on the target list for customers of Pegasus or any other NSO product, ”the spokesperson said.

NSO said the Pegasus software was intended to collect mobile data only on those suspected of being involved in crime and terrorism. He said his customer agreement required that the products not be used to violate human rights, and that he had shut down customers’ systems “several times in the past” due to misuse.

The investigation comes on top of the scrutiny of NSO, which was valued at over $ 1 billion in a buyout by its management team and private equity firm Novalpina in 2019.

In December, Citizen Lab said dozens of iPhones used by Al Jazeera reporters were hacked using NSO spyware. NSO said the claims were based on “speculation, inaccurate assumptions and without a full grasp of the facts.”

Previously, the Financial Times reported that attackers used a vulnerability in the WhatsApp messaging app to install NSO spyware on targeted phones. NSO had said it was not involved in the exploitation or targeting of its technology, which was only exploited by intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

Roula Khalaf, the FT’s editor, was among more than 180 journalists listed as potential targets by NSO clients in the investigation, The Guardian reported. The NSO spokesperson said he had confirmed that Khalaf “was not a target of Pegasus by any of NSO’s clients”.

“Press freedoms are vital and any interference or illegal state surveillance on journalists is unacceptable,” said a spokesperson for the FT.

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