FBI probing Israeli firm NSO over phone hacking suspicions — report

Sources tell Reuters that probe looking at whether NSO products were used to spy on American citizens or US allies

An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, on August 28, 2016, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)
An Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group, on August 28, 2016, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (AFP PHOTO / JACK GUEZ)

The FBI is investigating Israeli spyware firm NSO over suspicions its products were used to hack American citizens’ phones and spy on foreign governments, according to a Reuters report early Friday.

Sources familiar with the investigation said the probe is attempting to look at whether NSO products were being used to gain access to phones belonging to Americans and whether any foreign nations were using tools to spy on US government officials or those of allies, the news agency reported.

The investigation, which may not be solely focused on NSO, has been ongoing since 2017, according to Reuters.

NSO told the news agency it did not know of any FBI investigation.

“We have not been contacted by any US law enforcement at all about any such matters,” it said.

The FBI refused to comment on the report.

The Herzliya-based firm is best known for marketing Pegasus, a highly invasive tool that can reportedly switch on a target’s cellphone camera and microphone and access data, effectively turning the phone into a pocket spy.

The company says it provides its software to governments for the sole purpose of fighting terrorism and crime.

But dissidents, journalists and other opposition figures have repeatedly claimed the company’s technology has been used by repressive governments to spy on them.

NSO claims its software cannot be used on US numbers, but according to Reuters, the FBI is investigating whether the company obtained code from American hackers to infect smartphones.

In October, WhatsApp parent company Facebook filed suit in the US against NSO Group, accusing it of using the hugely popular instant messaging platform to conduct cyberespionage on nearly 1,400 journalists, diplomats, dissidents and human right activists worldwide.

Senior officials from some 20 countries that are allied with the United States were reportedly among the targets of the hacking campaign, according to an earlier Reuters report.

Independent UN rights experts said last week that the alleged Saudi hacking of Amazon owner Jeff Bezos’s phone was likely carried out using NSO spyware.

Bezos’s phone is reported to have been infiltrated through a WhatsApp account belonging to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Washington Post owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talks during a ceremony near the Saudi Arabia consulate in Istanbul, marking the one-year anniversary of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi death, October 2, 2019. (Lefteris Pitarakis/AP)

The Israeli firm said in a statement it was “shocked and appalled” by the reports linking its software to the Bezos phone hacking, and asserted that its software was definitely not involved.

The spyware has also been implicated in the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018. It is also said to be behind a campaign to compromise proponents of a soda tax in Mexico and an effort to hack into the phone of an Arab dissident which prompted an update to Apple’s operating system.

London-based Amnesty International, together with other human rights activists, are suing NSO in Tel Aviv to compel Israel’s Defense Ministry to revoke the export license it granted the company. Amnesty said the spyware has been used “in chilling attacks on human rights defenders around the world.”

Agencies contributed to this report.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed