An investigation by a global media consortium based on leaked targeting data alleged 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 organisations, journalists said they 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 organisations 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. In a separate statement, it called the Forbidden Stories report full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.
The company reiterated its claims that it only sells to vetted government agencies for use against terrorists and major criminals and that it has no visibility into its customers’ data.
Critics call those claims dishonest and have provided evidence that NSO directly manages the high-tech spying. They say the 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 journalists 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.
With the reports on spying triggering a huge furore in India, Information Technology and Communications Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw told the Lok Sabha that illegal surveillance was not possible in India, given its laws. Illegal snooping in any form is condemnable.