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Did an Israeli surveillance company sell spyware to international regimes who used it to track dissidents, journalists?

NSO Group vigorously denies the claims but the investigation by a consortium of media outlets has many worried about freedom of the press

Illustrative image (Photo: Allef Vinicius on Unsplash)

Israel is front and center of an international controversy over spyware that was used by foreign governments to track and hack into the phones of journalists, political officials and human rights activists, some of whom were murdered.

A group of news outlets revealed this week that a malware system called Pegasus, developed by the Herzliya-based NSO Group, was used to spy on potentially at least 1,000 targets for the company’s clients, including more than 180 journalists from CNN, The Associated Press, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and many more, according to an investigation published by Forbidden Stories – a free press advocacy group – with Amnesty International.

The initial investigative report confirmed that at least 180 phones of journalists were selected for tracking and that 67 were successfully hacked or targeted out of a list of 50,000, according to the report in Forbidden Stories.

NSO, however, did not reveal which governments purchased its software and denied the scope of the claims.

“NSO Group firmly denies false claims made in your report which many of them are uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability of your sources, as well as the basis of your story,” the company wrote in response to Forbidden Stories. “Your sources have supplied you with information that has no factual basis, as evidenced by the lack of supporting documentation for many of the claims.”

“The alleged amount of ‘leaked data of more than 50,000 phone numbers,’ cannot be a list of numbers targeted by governments using Pegasus, based on this exaggerated number.”

“NSO does not have insight into the specific intelligence activities of its customers, but even a rudimentary, common sense understanding of intelligence leads to the clear conclusion that these types of systems are used mostly for purposes other than surveillance.”

Though NSO is a private company, the Israeli government is under scrutiny for granting licenses to the company to do business with countries that possibly used the software for purposes other than tracking terrorists and criminals – which is the company’s stated purpose – and possibly to suppress dissent.

Israel’s Defense Ministry said it will “take appropriate action” if it is determined that NSO Group violated its licenses, while foreign countries worried that the data could have been shared with the Israeli government.

When the malware, Pegasus, gets into a phone it transfers personal and location data back to the company and can control the phone’s microphone and camera.

This has compromised and endangered the lives of journalists investigating totalitarian regimes and essentially quashed freedom of the press. The New York Times reported: “The journalist consortium linked NSO to a leaked list of more than 50,000 mobile numbers from more than 50 countries that it said appeared to be proposed surveillance targets for the company’s clients. The alliance said the list contained the numbers of hundreds of journalists, media proprietors, government leaders, opposition politicians, political dissidents, academics and rights campaigners.”

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said that if the reports are true, the activities of NSO are “completely unacceptable.”

Agnes Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, which first obtained the list of numbers for surveillance, said the sheer number of journalists on the list “illustrates how Pegasus is used as a tool to intimidate critical media.”

“It is about controlling public narrative, resisting scrutiny, and suppressing any dissenting voice,” she said.

However, NSO Group told The New York Times that its “technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” the journalist assassinated in the Saudi embassy in Turkey.

“We can confirm that our technology was not used to listen, monitor, track, or collect information regarding him or his family members mentioned in the inquiry,” the company said.

The Israeli prime minister’s office has not commented yet.

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Nicole Jansezian is the news editor for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS

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