JERUSALEM, Israel – Security researchers say cellphones belonging to at least six Palestinian human rights activists were hacked using spyware from the controversial Israeli hacker-for-hire company NSO Group.
The allegations, which were first raised by researchers from the human rights NGO Front Line Defenders, were published in a report on Monday after being independently confirmed by security researchers from Amnesty International and the University of Toronto. It is reportedly the first known instance that the powerful, military-grade spyware technology was used on phones belonging to Palestinian activists.
NSO Group is a private Israeli cyberintelligence company. Its “Pegasus” software works by installing itself on a phone without the user's knowledge and gives the hacker complete access to the entire contents of the phone, including the camera and microphone.
Some of the allegedly hacked phones belong to three members of six organizations that Israel recently designated as terror groups linked to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – a Marxist political group that has killed Israelis and is considered by Israel and the West to be a terrorist organization. Israel has provided little public evidence to support the terrorist designation but says the decision “was made on a factual and legal basis.” The six accused Palestinian groups deny the allegations of terrorism and claim Israel is trying to silence them.
An Israeli defense official speaking on condition of anonymity told the Associated Press said that the designation of the six organizations was based on solid evidence and any claim it was linked to the use of NSO software is baseless. The brief statement had no other details, and officials declined requests for further comment.
In response to the allegations, an NSO Group spokesperson said that “contractual and national security considerations” prevented them from revealing the identities of their customers
“As we stated in the past, NSO does not operate the products itself; the company license approved government agencies to do so. We are not privy to the details of individuals monitored,” the spokesperson said.
The report did not specify who was behind the alleged hacking, when it happened, or how the phones were infected. But four of the six iPhones used SIM cards issued by Israeli phone companies, the researchers said. That led them to question NSO Group’s claim that its software is never used to hack Israeli Phones.
Israel’s Defense Ministry approves the export of NSO Group’s spyware and the company’s export license prohibits it from allowing foreign customers to hack Israeli phones. Legal experts have raised privacy concerns if it is proven that the Israeli government is both a client and regulator of NSO Group.
“The burden on a government such as Israel to demonstrate that such extremely intrusive surveillance is appropriate under domestic law and under international law is extremely high,” said Prof. Yuval Shany, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute and a member of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem Faculty of Law.
CBN News previously reported on an investigation published in July by an international alliance of media outlets that accused the software of being abused by governments to spy on journalists, political dissidents, and human rights activists.
Israel’s Defense Ministry said at the time that it permits companies to export cybersecurity products to government “only for legal purposes” like crime prevention, and said it will “take appropriate action” if NSO did violate the terms of its export licenses.
Last week, the United States blacklisted NSO Group for developing and supplying “spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers,” according to a US Commerce Department statement. The move bars the company from access to US technology.
Washington’s decision has alarmed Jerusalem, which sees NSO Group as important to its national security interests. Israel is lobbying the US to reverse the blacklisting and is willing to agree to much tighter supervision on its licensing of NSO’s software, The New York Times reported Monday, citing two unnamed senior Israeli officials.
NSO Group has faced multiple legal challenges over its spyware technology. In 2020, an Israeli court dismissed a lawsuit filed by Amnesty International over allegations that NSO Group’s technology was used to track one of Amnesty’s employees. The court ruled that the organization did not provide sufficient evidence to prove its claim. Meanwhile, Facebook is currently suing NSO Group in federal court for allegedly exploiting a bug in its Whatsapp messaging app to install surveillance software.
NSO Group has denied all wrongdoing and after getting blacklisted by the US said: “We look forward to presenting the full information regarding how we have the world’s most rigorous compliance and human rights programs that are based (on) the American values we deeply share, which already resulted in multiple terminations of contacts with government agencies that misused our products.