Report: Palestinian activists’ phones hacked with controversial NSO Group technology

The mobile phones of at least six Palestinian rights activists were hacked using Pegasus software from the controversial Israeli cyber surveillance company NSO Group, according to independent investigations released Monday by the University of Toronto and Amnesty International.

The report did not specify who was behind the alleged hack, but the NSO Group’s export license prohibits the company from allowing foreign customers to hack Israeli phones, indicating that NSO Group violated its license or that the hack was carried out by Israel. in what would be the first documented case of the use of the technology against telephones served by Israeli operators.

The accusations came amid international criticism of Israel after the Defense Ministry and the army outlawed six Palestinian rights groups, accusing them of acting as fronts for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine terror group, which the organizations have denied.

Three of the hacked phones belonged to members of three of these groups.

According to the University of Toronto Citizen Lab and Amnesty Security Laboratory, the human rights organization Front Line Defenders found snippets of code linked to the NSO Group’s powerful Pegasus surveillance tool on the phones of the six Palestinians. The researchers then compared the processes carried out by the phones with that code with the activity on the NSO Group’s servers at similar times.

In its report, Citizen Lab said that the NSO Group has “implicitly acknowledged that this methodology” correctly identifies that a phone has been breached with its software and that this technique has withstood scrutiny in several countries.

In response to the allegations, an NSO Group spokesperson said “national security and contractual considerations” prevented them from revealing the identity of their clients.

“As we have said in the past, NSO does not operate the products themselves; the company’s license approved government agencies to do so. We are not aware of the details of the people monitored, ”the spokesman said.

At a press conference in Ramallah, officials from Palestinian rights groups demanded an investigation by the international community.

“We don’t know who is behind this and we don’t know what kind of information they got. That is why we are demanding a transparent international investigation, “said Tahseen Eliyan, a researcher with the Palestinian rights group al-Haq.

Pegasus is considered one of the most powerful cyber surveillance tools available on the market, giving operators the ability to take full control of a target’s phone, download all data from the device, or activate its camera or microphone without the user. know. In earlier versions of the system, the phone owner unknowingly needed to download a file or click a link to give operators access to the device, but more recent iterations have removed this requirement, giving away control of the phone without the user. Needing to do something.

Three of the Palestinian rights activists whose phones were attacked agreed to be identified by name: Ghassan Halaika, Al-Haq field researcher; Ubai Aboudi, Executive Director of the Bisan Center for Research and Development; and Salah Hammouri, a lawyer and investigator for Addameer, a group that advocates for Palestinian prisoners.

All three came from groups that Israel declared last month as terrorist organizations. The other three activists whose phones were hacked declined to be publicly identified.

Hammouri, who has Palestinian and French citizenship, lived and worked in East Jerusalem as a permanent resident until last year when the Israeli Interior Ministry revoked his residency status for “breach of loyalty to the State of Israel,” according to Al-Haq. , which he took in his case.

Aboudi also has dual citizenship, Palestinian and American.

“This shows that no Palestinian is immune from these kinds of violations, not even those, like Saleh Hammouri and myself, who have foreign passports. As long as you are Palestinian, you can be a target, ”Aboudi said at the press conference in Ramallah on Monday.

Aboudi was arrested by Israel in 2020 for his previous involvement in the student wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. He later accepted an agreement with the prosecution that saw him serve about a year in prison. Aboudi maintains that his agreement with the prosecution was solely due to high conviction rates in Israeli military courts, which made a legal battle costly and redundant.

Two of the six activists had phones with Palestinian service providers, while four of them had SIM cards with Israeli companies, three of them through Cellcom and one through HOT Mobile. Although Citizen Lab has identified cases of Pegasus use against Palestinian phones in the past, this would be the first documented case of the technology used in Israeli devices.

The Israel Police, the Israel Defense Forces, and the Shin Bet security service generally rely on their own in-house developed capabilities to hack phones, rather than relying on civilian companies like the NSO Group.

According to Citizen Lab, Halaika’s phone was likely hacked in July 2020, Aboudi’s phone in February 2021, and Hammouri’s in April 2021. The other three phones were hacked in November 2020, February 2021, and April 2021 .

This summer, media around the world revealed the scope of NSO Group’s activities based on investigations by Citizen Lab and Amnesty International, and found that the company’s software had been used by many countries with a poor track record. rights activists to hack into the phones of thousands of activists and journalists. and politicians.

Earlier this week, the United States blacklisted the NSO Group for developing and supplying “spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businessmen, activists, academics, and embassy workers.” according to a US Department of Commerce statement.

Morocco’s alleged use of NSO Group technology against French President Emmanuel Macron also sparked a minor diplomatic dispute between Jerusalem and Paris, which the two countries agreed to leave behind last week, following a meeting between Macron and the former. Minister Naftali Bennett.

Last month, Defense Minister Benny Gantz stated that Al-Haq, the Bisan Center and Addameer, along with Defense for Children International-Palestine, the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees and the Union of Agricultural Labor Committees, are terrorist organizations.

Gantz’s appointment had little immediate impact, as the groups operate within the West Bank and are therefore officially outside of Israel’s jurisdiction. Still, the terrorist classification caused some of the groups’ funders to withdraw their financial support, fearing financial penalties.

But last week, the head of the Israel Defense Forces Central Command, which has formal legal authority over the West Bank as the area’s military governor, officially designated the groups as “rogue organizations,” empowering the army to close the offices. groups and arrest them. members.

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