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Notorious Israel NSO spyware hacked mobile phones of Palestinian rights groups

November 8, 2021 at 1:16 pm

This studio photographic illustration shows a smartphone with the website of Israel’s NSO Group which features ‘Pegasus’ spyware, on display on 21 July 2021 [JOEL SAGET/AFP/Getty Images]

The recently backlisted notorious Israeli NSO spyware was used to target the phones of six Palestinian human rights groups that were controversially declared terrorist organisations by Defence Minister Benny Gantz, an investigation by Front Line Defenders (FLD) has found.

FLD, a Dublin-based human rights group, investigated 75 iPhones and found that six devices were hacked with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. FLD’s findings were independently confirmed with “high confidence” by technical experts at Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s security lab, the world’s leading authorities on such hacks.

Three of the six victims that consented to being identified are Ghassan Halaika: Field researcher and human rights defender working for Al-Haq; US citizen Ubai Al-Aboudi: Executive Director at Bisan Center for Research and Development and Salah Hamouri: Lawyer and field researcher at Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association based in Jerusalem.

Hamouri, who is a citizen of France, was notified of the Israeli Minister of Interior’s decision to revoke his permanent residency in Jerusalem and deport him on the basis of his alleged “breach of allegiance to the State of Israel.” Human rights groups cite this kind of revocation of residency, which his exclusively used to punish non-Jews, as an example of the apartheid practiced by Israel.

READ: Israelis Against Apartheid slam terrorism designation of 6 Palestinian groups

Al-Haq contacted FLD a few days before being blacklisted by Israel about the device of a Jerusalem-based staff member and a possible infection with spyware. Front Line Defenders immediately conducted a technical investigation, and found that the device had been infected in July 2020, with spyware sold by Israel-based NSO Group.

FLD began investigating other devices belonging to members of the six Palestinian civil society organisations designated terrorists and found that five additional devices were hacked with the same spyware.

FLD called on “states, international bodies, corporations and law enforcement authorities to clearly and unequivocally reject the terrorism charges brought against Palestinian human rights organisations and human rights defenders.”

In July, a global investigation by the Washington Postthe GuardianLe Monde and other news outlets reported that Pegasus spyware has been used to monitor human rights defenders, journalists and politicians around the world.

The investigation found that the NSO Group was supplying technology to foreign governments to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers. Earlier this month the US put the Israeli firm on a trade blacklist over its rogue activities.