The controversial spyware programme Pegasus, from Israeli company NSO, has been found on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists working for established non-governmental organisations (NGOs), a report from Irish human rights organisation Front Line Defenders (FLD) reveals.
FLD says forensic examination of 75 phones from three leading Palestinian organisations in mid-October disclosed traces of the NSO spyware programme Pegasus on six of their phones. NSO has said it only sells Pegasus to legitimate governments focused on countering terrorism. The Israeli government must approve each sale of Pegasus to a client.
The groups affected are Addameer; Al-Haq; and the Bisan Center for Research and Development.
Considered one of the world’s most sophisticated surveillance tools, Pegasus can be placed remotely on a phone, without its owner being aware. Once installed, the software gives an attacker complete access to a phone’s messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, passwords, voice calls (including over encrypted messaging apps), location data, and contacts.
Last week, the US Commerce Department blacklisted NSO, accusing it and another Israeli company, Candiru, of selling foreign governments the software tools "to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics, and embassy workers."
A major investigation last July by 17 media organisations, including the Washington Post, the Guardian, and Le Monde, found that Pegasus spyware has been used to monitor human rights defenders, journalists and politicians across the world.
“It is sadly not a surprise to discover evidence that Pegasus is being used against Palestinian human rights defenders in spite of assurances from NSO group. It is long past time for effective international regulation of the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology,” FLD director Andrew Anderson told The Irish Times.
None of the Palestinian NGOs was designated a terrorist organisation at the time of the forensic discoveries, which have been independently verified by digital forensic experts Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, Canada, and Amnesty International’s Security Lab.
Within days of the phones being given to FLD for examination, Israeli minister of defence, Benny Gantz announced that the three organisations along with three others had been newly classified as branches of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) and therefore "terrorist organisations" under Israel's Anti-Terrorism Law 2016.
The designation in late October provoked an immediate outcry from the United States, the United Nations and the European Union, which all dispute the claim.
On a formal two-day visit to Israel last week, Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney told the Jerusalem Post, "We have not gotten any credible evidence to link the NGOs to terrorism." The paper said the issue was "high on his agenda."
The Government provides funding to two of the NGOs, Al-Haq and Addameer. Mr Coveney told the Jerusalem Post that both organisations had passed a government inspection and said that evidence provided by Israel did not make a sufficient case for the designation.
Front Line Defenders (FLD) found the first Pegasus-infected device after Ghassan Halaika, a field researcher for Al-Haq, suspected his phone had been compromised and approached FLD’s digital protection coordinator, Mohammad Al-Maskati, on October 16th.
Other individuals whose phones were affected include Ubai Al-Aboudi, executive director at Bisan Center for Research and Development, who holds US citizenship, and lawyer Salah Hammouri, a field researcher at Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association in Jerusalem.
Mr Hammouri, a French citizen, was informed on October 18th that Israel intended to revoke his permanent residency in Jerusalem and deport him on the basis of his alleged “breach of allegiance to the State of Israel.”
Mr Al-Aboudi told The Irish Times of his shock at learning his phone had been hacked:
“As a father, husband, human rights defender and US citizen I will explore all options to hold the people responsible for this hack accountable for their violations,” he said. “For me, it’s part of a systematic attack on human rights defenders and the values of democracy and freedom.”
Mr Al-Maskati said FLD’s report provides clear evidence of the targeting and surveillance of Palestinian activists and NGOs. He said a larger investigation must be undertaken by the international community to determine who purchased the software and used it to infiltrate the activists’ phones.
In its report, FLD says Israel can use the “terrorist” designation to close the offices of the organisations, seize assets, arrest and jail staff members, and block international funding.
“The exposure of illegal spying on peaceful Palestinian human rights defenders, coming on top of baseless claims about terrorism against internationally respected human rights organisations, emphasises how important is the continued support of the international community for their legitimate work,” said Mr Anderson.
In a statement issued to the Associated Press, NSO Group said that it does not identify its customers for contractual and national security reasons, is not privy to whom they hack and sells only to government agencies for use against “serious crime and terror.”
An Israeli defence official told AP in a brief statement that the designation of the six organisations was based on solid evidence and that any claim it is related to the use of NSO software is unfounded.