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July 18, 2021, 9:42 p.m. EDT

Investigation finds journalists, activists around the globe among Israeli firm’s spyware targets

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By Associated Press

BOSTON — An investigation by a global media consortium based on leaked targeting data provides further evidence that military-grade malware from Israel-based NSO Group, the world’s most infamous hacker-for-hire outfit, is being used to spy on journalists, human rights activists and political dissidents.

From a list of more than 50,000 cellphone numbers obtained by the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and the human rights group Amnesty International and shared with 16 news organizations, journalists were able to identify more than 1,000 individuals in 50 countries who were  allegedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance.

They include 189 journalists, more than 600 politicians and government officials, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists and several heads of state, according to  The Washington Post , a consortium member. The journalists work for organizations including The Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and The Financial Times.

Amnesty also reported  that its forensic researchers had determined that NSO Group’s flagship Pegasus spyware was successfully installed on the phone of Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, just four days after he was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018. The company had previously been implicated in other spying on Khashoggi.

NSO Group denied in an emailed response to AP questions that it has ever maintained “a list of potential, past or existing targets” and said it has no visibility into its customers’ data. In a separate statement, it called the Forbidden Stories report “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.”

The company reiterated its claim that it only sells to “vetted government agencies” for use against terrorists and major criminals. Critics call those claims dishonest and say repeated abuse of Pegasus spyware highlights the nearly complete lack of regulation of the private global surveillance industry.

The source of the leak — and how it was authenticated — was not disclosed. While a phone number’s presence in the data does not mean an attempt was made to hack a device, the consortium said it believed the data indicated potential targets of NSO’s government clients. The Post said it identified 37 hacked smartphones on the list. The Guardian, another consortium member, reported that Amnesty had found traces of Pegasus  infections on the cellphones of 15 journalist  s who let their phones be examined after discovering their number was in the leaked data.

The most numbers on the list, 15,000, were for Mexican phones, with a large share in the Middle East. NSO Group’s spyware has been implicated in targeted surveillance chiefly in the Middle East and Mexico. Saudi Arabia is reported to be among NSO clients. Also on the lists were phones in countries including France, Hungary, India, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Pakistan.

“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,” Amnesty quoted its secretary-general, Agnes Callamard, as saying.

AP’s 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 on the list of the 1,000 potential targets for Pegasus infection. She said the AP was investigating to try to determine if its two staffers’ devices were compromised by the spyware.

The consortium’s findings build on extensive work by cybersecurity researchers, primarily from the University of Toronto-based watchdog Citizen Lab. NSO targets identified by researchers beginning in 2016 include  dozens of Al-Jazeera journalists and executives , New York Times Beirut bureau chief  Ben Hubbard , Moroccan journalist and activist  Omar Radi  and prominent Mexican anti-corruption reporter Carmen Aristegui. Her phone number was on the list, the Post reported. The Times said Hubbard and its former Mexico City bureau chief, Azam Ahmed, were on the list.

Two Hungarian investigative journalists,  Andras Szabo and Szabolcs Panyi, were among journalists on the list whose phones were successfully infected with Pegasus, the Guardian reported.

Among more than two dozen previously  documented Mexican targets  are proponents of a soda tax, opposition politicians, human rights activists investigating a mass disappearance and the widow of a slain journalist. In the Middle East, the victims have mostly been journalists and dissidents, allegedly targeted by the Saudi and United Arab Emirates governments.

The consortium’s “Pegasus Project” reporting bolsters accusations that not just autocratic regimes but democratic governments, including India and Mexico, have used NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware for political ends. Its members, who include Le Monde and Sueddeutsche Zeitung of Germany, are promising a series of stories based on the leak.

Pegasus infiltrates phones to vacuum up personal and location data and surreptitiously control the smartphone’s microphones and cameras. In the case of journalists, that lets hackers spy on reporters’ communications with sources.

The program is designed to bypass detection and mask its activity. NSO Group’s methods to infect its victims have grown so sophisticated that researchers say it can now do so without any user interaction, the so-called “zero-click’ option.

In 2019, WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook  sued NSO Group in U.S. federal court in San Francisco , accusing it of exploiting a flaw in the popular encrypted messaging service to target – with missed calls alone — some 1,400 users. NSO Group denies the accusations.

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