Palestinians: Israeli NSO spyware found on officials’ phones

Joseph Krauss

AP  /  November 11, 2021

JERUSALEM — The Palestinian Foreign Ministry on Thursday said it has detected spyware developed by the Israeli hacker-for-hire company NSO Group on the phones of three senior officials and accused Israel of using the military-grade Pegasus software to eavesdrop on them.

The Palestinian accusations against NSO came as the embattled Israeli firm acknowledged that it had called off the appointment of its incoming chief executive in the wake of U.S. accusations that its spyware has been used by repressive governments around the world.

Thursday’s announcement by the Foreign Ministry marked the first time Palestinian officials have accused NSO of spying on them.

Earlier this week, software was detected on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists, three of whom worked for civil society organizations that Israel has controversially branded as terrorist groups.

The spyware can be secretly installed without the victim taking any action and gives full access to their phone, including real-time communications.

Israeli officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment. NSO Group declined to comment on the specific allegations, saying it does not disclose its clients and does not have information on the individuals they target.

Ahmed al-Deek, the assistant Palestinian foreign minister for political affairs, said a “professional Palestinian institution” inspected several phones and detected Pegasus on three of them. It was not immediately clear if the results were verified by outside researchers.

The hacking of the activists’ phones was independently verified by security researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and by Amnesty International. Amnesty said it has not been asked to verify the Foreign Ministry’s findings.

“We are 100% sure that these three phones were hacked,” al-Deek said. “They belonged to senior officials.”

A Foreign Ministry statement blamed Israel for the hacking, calling it a “blatant and immoral violation of international law” and urged an international boycott of all parties involved.

NSO Group has come under fire in recent years after its software was found on the phones of rights activists, journalists, dissidents and other public figures from Mexico to Saudi Arabia. The Biden administration moved to limit the company’s access to U.S. technology earlier this month, saying its tools have been used to “conduct transnational repression.”

After the U.S. announcement, NSO Group called off a leadership transition in which Itzik Benbenisti was set to take over as CEO from the company’s founder, Shalev Hulio. A source within the company said Thursday that Benbenisti resigned after the transition was scrapped and before assuming the new position. The individual spoke on condition of anonymity because the company has not issued an official statement.

The Israeli government regulates NSO Group but has not said whether it uses the software. Officials have denied there was any link between the decision to outlaw the rights groups and any use of NSO software. The company says its products are used by security agencies to combat crime and terrorism.

The Palestinian Authority governs parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank under agreements reached in the early 1990s. Its security forces cooperate with Israel against Hamas and other militant groups that both view as a threat, and it is seen by Western countries as a partner in the long-dormant peace process.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled the first elections in 15 years last spring, and his popularity has plummeted as Palestinians increasingly view the PA as a corrupt and authoritarian institution.

Security cooperation is extremely unpopular among Palestinians, many of whom view it as aiding Israel’s half-century occupation of lands the Palestinians want for a future state.