Amnesty says NSO’s Pegasus used to hack phones of Palestinian rights workers

An aerial view shows the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel (Amir Cohen - Reuters)

Reuters  /  November 8, 2021

JERUSALEM – The mobile phones of six Palestinian rights workers in the Israeli-occupied West Bank were hacked using Israeli technology firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, Amnesty International and internet security watchdog Citizen Lab said on Monday.

The new findings followed NSO’s blacklisting last week by the U.S. Commerce Department amid allegations its spyware targeted journalists, rights activists and government officials in several countries.

NSO, which voiced dismay at the U.S. move, exports its products under licences from Israel’s Defence Ministry and says it only sells to law enforcement and intelligence agencies and that it takes steps to curb abuse.

London-based Amnesty and Toronto’s Citizen Lab said they had independently confirmed that Pegasus had been used to hack the Palestinian activists’ phones, after Front Line Defenders, an international rights group, began collecting data in October about the suspected hacking.

The Israeli Defence Ministry did not immediately comment on the new findings.

Asked about the allegations, NSO said: “As we stated in the past, NSO Group does not operate the products itself … and we are not privy to the details of individuals monitored.”

Three of the six people work for Palestinian rights groups that Israel designated as terrorist organizations last month, saying they had funneled donor aid to militants. The groups named by Israel have denied the allegations.

Stopping short of blaming Israel for the alleged hacking, some of the groups whose workers were said to have been targeted demanded an international investigation.

“We don’t have evidence. We can’t accuse a certain party since we don’t have yet enough information about who carried out that action,” Sahar Francis, director of Addameer Organization, said at a news conference in Ramallah.

“The United Nations is responsible for human rights and for protecting human rights and they have a responsibility to launch such an investigation to make sure that countries don’t exploit these software to repress human rights advocates,” Francis said.

Israel has for years used mobile phone surveillance to track suspected Palestinian militants.

Reporting by Maayan Lubell, Steven Scheer and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Ali Sawafta in Rammallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Bernadette Baum and Angus MacSwan