An Israeli spyware firm linked to the killing of Saudi Journalist Jamal Khashoggi and condemned by Amnesty International as being "out of control", has become mired in another scandal involving the suspected murder of a journalist.
An investigation by the Canadian research organisation Citizen Lab into the killing of a prominent Mexican investigative reporter, Javier Valdez, in May 2017, found that the Israeli spyware Pegasus was being used to infiltrate the phones of his colleagues in the industry.
The spyware, developed by elite Israeli military units, infiltrates smartphones and monitors calls, texts, email and contacts and can use the device's microphone and camera for surveillance.
Colleagues of Valdez are alleged to have been targeted by the Mexican government using the Israeli software to turn their phones into a "digital spy." The journalists said that their knowledge and awareness of the use of Pegasus to hack into phones raised suspicions when they received messages on their phones about their colleague's murder. The suspicious messages were a ploy, they said, to get access to their phone once they clicked on to the link.
In the Citizen Lab investigation published today, the Canadian organisation concluded that the targeting had disturbing implication: "Pegasus spyware might have been used by officials covertly trying to ascertain just how much victims' families, lawyers, and investigators knew about who was responsible for the crimes," the report said.
These allegations confirm numerous reports concerning advanced Israeli spyware purchased by governments around the world to target political oppositions and government critics including their families.
A New York Times report found that since 2011, at least three Mexican federal agencies had purchased about $80 million worth of spyware created by the Israeli cyber arms manufacturer. The software, said the Times, was being used against some of the government's most outspoken critics and their families. It was viewed by many as "an unprecedented effort to thwart the fight against the corruption infecting every limb of Mexican society".
Looking into how the Israeli spyware may also have facilitated the killing of Khashoggi, the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) reported that Omar Abdulaziz, a close associate of the Washington Post columnist, had his phone infiltrated by Pegasus.
Pegasus had turned the targeted phones into spying devices, allowing practically anything on the phone to be accessed by the remote operator, including photos, text messages, encrypted conversations such as WhatsApp and even entire phone calls.
Abdulaziz and Khashoggi are known to be close associates. At one stage they were talking on the phone every day. Given their close relation, the CPJ reports that "the Saudi government would have had access to hours of unvarnished conversations between the two men."
CPJ reported that Abdulaziz "feels a tremendous amount of guilt that the hacking of his cell phone gave the Saudi government a direct line into Jamal's private thoughts."
A profile of the NSO group, which manufactures the spyware, shows that it has strong links to the Israeli state.
The NSO group has been forced to release a statement following the publication of Citizen Lab's report.
The Israeli company claimed it had sold the software only to governments, and said it had measures in place to ensure that its clients followed the ethical guidelines stipulated in purchasing agreements.
However, the group's defence of its spyware is unlikely to convince critics. The Mexican governments illicit spying of the nation's nascent pro-democracy movement was discovered nearly two years ago.
Amnesty International has raised calls for the NSO group's licence to be revoked. The rights group, which also targeted by the Israeli spyware said that "NSO has gone out of control", adding that since it has been proven NSO's software has been used in "a series of egregious human rights violations", the company's export licence should be revoked.