Jordan accused of using NSO’s Pegasus to spy on four human rights activists

Hacking allegations are the latest in a series of reports linking spyware to abuses by authoritarian governments

An illustrative photo of a person holding their phone with the NSO logo on a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
An illustrative photo of a person holding their phone with the NSO logo on a computer screen in the background, in Jerusalem, on February 7, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

AP — Digital-rights researchers have concluded that the mobile phones of four Jordanian human rights activists were hacked over a two-year period with software made by the Israeli spyware company NSO Group.

Tuesday’s findings by Front Line Defenders and Citizen Lab said at least some of the hackings appear to have been carried out by the Jordanian government. It was the latest in a series of reports linking NSO’s Pegasus spyware software to abuses by authoritarian governments.

Jordan denied the allegations. NSO had no comment on the findings, but said the monitoring of political activists by any client would amount to a “severe misuse” of its product. Both the company and the Israeli government have faced repeated criticism over their oversight practices.

The report identified the activists as Ahmed al-Neimat, an anti-corruption activist who it said has been banned by Jordan from working or leaving the country; human rights lawyer Malik Abu Orabi; and Suhair Jaradat, a female journalist and human rights activist. It said another female human rights activist and journalist was targeted, but asked to remain anonymous due to security concerns.

It said at least two of the targets appeared to have been hacked by operators “primarily focused on Jordan.” It said it identified two operators that were “likely agencies of the Jordanian government.”

Earlier this year, Frontline Defenders said another female Jordan activist, Hala Ahed Deeb, had also been hacked by NSO software.

Frontline Defenders is a nonprofit advocacy group based in Ireland that says it provides assistance to human rights activists who are in danger. Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, conducts research on information technology, security, and human rights. Both organizations have previously investigated NSO.

According to their joint report, the hacks took place between August 2019 and December 2021. It said the last hack took place on an iPhone, indicating that NSO has continued to target Apple’s operating system even after a lawsuit by the global technology giant over previous hacks.

In a statement, Andrew Anderson, executive director of Front Line Defenders, said the research “shows that human rights defenders undertaking legitimate and peaceful work continue to be targeted by the local authorities” in the Middle East.

Jordan’s National Center for Cyber Security “categorically denied” the findings of the report. “These allegations are baseless, and Jordan has not cooperated with any agents with the aim of spying on citizens’ phones or censoring their calls,” it said.

NSO’s Pegasus product allows operators to stealthily invade a target’s mobile device, giving them access to contacts, messages, and movement history.

The company says that Pegasus is sold only to foreign governments after approval by Israel’s Defense Ministry as a tool for catching criminals and terrorists. Although it says it has safeguards in place to prevent abuse, it has also acknowledged it cannot control whom its clients monitor and it does not have access to the information that is collected.

“While we have not seen the report mentioned in your inquiry, and without confirming or denying specific customers, NSO’s firm stance on these issues is that the use of cyber tools in order to monitor dissidents, activists, and journalists is a severe misuse of any technology and goes against the desired use of such critical tools,” the company said.

NSO does not identify its customers and would not say whether they include Jordan. But the company says that it has cut off seven customers for abusing its technology. These reportedly have included authorities in the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Mexico.

However, human rights groups and outside researchers have said the company’s safeguards are insufficient. They say customers have abused Pegasus to keep tabs on journalists, human rights activists, and political dissidents from Mexico to Saudi Arabia to the West Bank. Last year, the US blacklisted the company, saying its tools had been used to “conduct transnational repression.”

Critics have also accused Israel of lax oversight over the digital surveillance industry. Late last year, Israel said it was tightening its supervision of cyber exports.

Tuesday’s report, however, said the case, along with previous ones, “amount to an indisputable indictment against NSO Group, and its ownership, for their inability or unwillingness to put in place even the most basic human rights-respecting safeguards.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II bin Al-Hussein speaks at a news conference after talks at the Chancellery, in Berlin, Germany, on March 15, 2022. (Hannibal Hanschke/Pool via AP, File)

Jordan is a monarchy widely seen as a voice of moderation in the turbulent Middle East, making it a strategic ally of the West. But King Abdullah II has placed limits on the amount of public dissent he is willing to tolerate and his government has been accused of corruption and human rights abuses.

A year ago, he accused his half brother, the former Crown Prince Hamzah, of involvement in a “malicious plot” and placed him under house arrest. In a video statement at the time, Hamzah denied the allegations, saying he was being punished for speaking out against official corruption.

Hamzah, who has been seen in public just once since then, this week relinquished his royal title in apparent protest over how the country is run. He wrote that he was driven to the decision because his convictions cannot be reconciled with the “current approaches, policies and methods of our institutions.”

The Royal Court did not comment.

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