PA alleges: NSO Group spyware used to hack foreign ministry workers’ phones

Palestinian Authority asserts it has proof of ‘Israeli intrusion,’ after rights groups’ alleged they were targeted with the Israel-based firm’s tech

Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki speaks during a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 22, 2020. (Stringer/Flash90)
Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki speaks during a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 22, 2020. (Stringer/Flash90)

The Palestinian Authority foreign ministry on Wednesday said some of its employees’ phones were hacked by Pegasus, a controversial spyware application made by the Israeli cybersecurity firm NSO Group.

An investigation by the rights groups Front Line Defenders, Citizen Lab and Amnesty International alleged on Monday that six Palestinians had their cellphones hacked by the software. Three of the Palestinians worked at organizations Israel recently declared to be terror groups, drawing an international outcry.

The Palestinian rights group Al-Haq had previously declared that some foreign ministry civil servants had also been hacked. But the PA ministry did not comment until now.

“We always expected that our telephones were infiltrated by the occupation authorities and that all we said and sent was listened to and monitored. But now, we have evidence and legal documents that acknowledge the existence of this Israeli intrusion,” the PA foreign ministry said in a statement.

An Israeli Defense Ministry spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment.

NSO Group activities have sparked controversy in recent months. The company has been dogged by accusations that the Pegasus software was used by governments to track dissidents and human rights activists. NSO insists its product is meant only to assist countries in fighting crime and terrorism.

In response to the latest allegations, an NSO Group spokesperson said that “contractual and national security considerations” prevented the firm from revealing the identity of its 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 said.

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)

This summer, news outlets around the world revealed the scope of NSO Group’s activities based on Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s investigations, finding that the firm’s software had been used by many countries with poor human rights records to hack the phones of thousands of activists, journalists and politicians.

NSO Group and a second Israeli firm Candiru was blacklisted last week by the US Commerce Department for allegedly developing and supplying “spyware to foreign governments that used these tools to maliciously target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers.”

According to a New York Times report Monday, Israel is lobbying the US to reverse that designation.

The alleged use of NSO Group’s technology by Morocco against French President Emmanuel Macron also sparked a minor diplomatic squabble between Jerusalem and Paris, which the two countries agreed to put behind them last week, following a meeting between Macron and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.

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