Finland alleges diplomats’ phones hacked with Israeli spyware

Nordic country’s spy chief says ‘a state actor of some sort’ likely behind use of NSO Group’s Pegasus, adding ‘one should not handle confidential information over a mobile phone’

Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
Finland's Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto speaks during a media conference at NATO headquarters in Brussels, January 24, 2022. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)

STOCKHOLM (AP) — The mobile devices of Finnish diplomats working abroad have been hacked with the use of sophisticated spyware, Finland’s government said Friday, and the Nordic country’s spy chief said a “state actor” was likely to blame.

The Finnish Foreign Ministry said the victims were targeted through Pegasus software developed by Israeli spyware company NSO Group. The software can seamlessly infiltrate a mobile phone and allow its operators to gain access to the device’s contents and location history.

“The highly sophisticated malware has infected users’ Apple or Android telephones without their noticing and without any action from the user’s part,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement which was also tweeted. “Through the spyware, the perpetrators may have been able to harvest data from the device and exploit its features.”

Jarmo Sareva, Finland’s Ambassador for Cyber Security, would not disclose the data harvested, but said under government protocols information transmitted by phone must be public or classified at the lowest level.

“As you know Pegasus spyware does take the phone under its control,” Sareva said. “Even the microphone and camera of these devices were being spied on.”

He wouldn’t say how many diplomats were targeted or in which countries they were stationed.

Asked who was believed to be behind the cyber espionage he said: “We have our suspicions of course,” but declined to elaborate.

The Foreign Ministry said it had been investigating the case since the fall, adding that “the espionage is no longer active.”

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, August 24, 2021. (Sebastian Scheiner/AP)

Antti Pelttari, director of the Finnish Security and Intelligence Service, later said “a state actor of some sort” was likely behind the hack.

“This (case) indicates for its part how vulnerable a mobile phone is,” Pelttari said in an interview with the Finnish broadcaster MTV3 on Friday. “One should not handle confidential information over a mobile phone. It is a vulnerable tool.”

NSO says it sells Pegasus only to governments for the purpose of fighting crime and terrorism. All sales require approval from Israel’s Defense Ministry. While it says it has safeguards in place to prevent abuse, NSO says it has no control over how a client uses the product and no access to the data they collect. It says it has terminated several contracts due to inappropriate use of Pegasus.

Confirmed targets have included Mexican and Saudi journalists, British attorneys and Palestinian human rights activists. The phones of 11 US State Department employees, including some foreign service officers, working in Uganda were hacked with NSO spyware, The Associated Press and other media outlets reported last year.

AP also revealed in exclusive reports based on findings by Citizen Lab, an internet watchdog at the University of Toronto, that critics of Poland’s right-wing government were hacked using Pegasus. The hacking triggered a scandal some Poles compare to Watergate.

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