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Israeli firm’s spyware used to hack journalists phones globally, report says; company denies claims

Cellphone use (relexahotels/Pixabay)
July 20, 2021

Military-grade spyware known as Pegasus, developed by a private Israeli company, was used in 37 attempted and successful hacks of cellphones owned by journalists, human rights activists, business executives and two women connected to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, an investigation by The Washington Post and other news publications found.

The phones were discovered among a list of over 50,000 numbers from countries known to monitor their citizens, which have also been connected to NSO Group, the Israeli firm that develops technology “to prevent and investigate terror and crime.” There was no indication as to why the numbers are on the list or who put them there, and it is unknown which numbers, if any, were targeted or surveilled.

The Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories, along with the human rights group Amnesty International, shared the list with news organizations, which subsequently conducted additional research and analysis. Amnesty also performed forensic analyses on the smartphones targeted.

Amnesty’s examination of 67 smartphones revealed 23 were successfully infected with Pegasus spyware and 14 more indicated attempts to penetrate had been made. The tests were inconclusive for the remaining 30.

Reporters managed to identify over 1,000 people across more than 50 countries on four continents, including at least 65 business executives, multiple Arab royal family members, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists, and over 600 politicians and government officials. Several heads of state and prime ministers were also recognized on the list.

NSO group rejected the reports’ assertions.  

“NSO Group firmly denies false claims made in your report which many of them are uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability of your sources, as well as the basis of your story,” the firm said in a statement to The Post. Your sources have supplied you with information that has no factual basis, as evidenced by the lack of supporting documentation for many of the claims.”

The Israeli company said it would “continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse” and would take actions based on its own findings.  

“The fact is, NSO Group’s technologies have helped prevent terror attacks, gun violence, car explosions and suicide bombings,” the company continued. “The technologies are also being used every day to break up pedophilia-, sex-, and drug-trafficking rings, locate missing and kidnapped children, locate survivors trapped under collapsed buildings, and protect airspace against disruptive penetration by dangerous drones.”

“Simply put, NSO Group is on a life-saving mission, and the company will faithfully execute this mission undeterred, despite any and all continued attempts to discredit it on false grounds,” NSO concluded.