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Report: Palestinian activists’ phones hacked with NSO Group spyware

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

Cellphones belonging to at least six Palestinian rights activists were hacked using the contentious Israeli cyber-surveillance firm NSO Group’s Pegasus software, according to independent investigations by the University of Toronto and Amnesty International.

The report published today doesn’t specify who was behind the alleged hacking, but NSO Group’s export license forbids the firm from allowing foreign customers to hack Israeli phones, indicating that either NSO Group violated its license or that the hacking was done by Israel in what would be the first documented case of the technology being used against Israeli phones.

According to the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab and Amnesty’s Security Lab, pieces of code linked to NSO Group’s powerful Pegasus surveillance tool were found on the six Palestinians’ phones by the human rights organization Front Line Defenders. The investigators then matched processes undertaken by the phones with that code to activity on NSO Group’s servers at similar times.

In response to the allegations, an NSO Group spokesperson says that “contractual and national security considerations” prevented them from revealing the identity of their clients.

“As we stated in the past, NSO does not operate the products itself; the company license approved government agencies to do so. We are not privy to the details of individuals monitored,” the spokesperson says.

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