The latest data reveals that spyware was sold to authoritarian regimes to target activists, politicians, and journalists.
HR activists, journalists, and lawyers worldwide are targets of authoritarian governments. They use hacked software from Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, which shared an investigation into a massive data leak.
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Seventeen media organizations conducted an investigation and believe that there’s an abuse of NSO’s hacking spyware, Pegasus, and the company claims it is used for the fight against criminals and terrorists.
Pegasus represents malware infecting iPhones and Android devices so that the operators could extract messages, photos, emails, record calls, etc.
We have more than 50.000 phone numbers leak from the leak, which has been identified as people of interest by clients of NSO since 2016.
Forbidden Stories is a Paris-based nonprofit media organization, and Amnesty International initially had access to the leaked information but shared it with their media partners as part of their Pegasus project.
The phone numbers don’t share if a Pegasus infected the device. But, the consortium thinks that the data is indicative of the potential targets NSO’s government clients previously identified of surveillance attempts.
Small phone numbers analysis showed up on the leaked list and presented that more than half had marks of the Pegasus spyware.
The media partners that investigated this issue shared that people identities whose numbers were analyzed appeared on the list. Among them, we can find business executives, religious figures, academics, NGO employees, union and government officials, cabinet ministers, etc.
Furthermore, the list has numbers of family members of one country’s ruler, sharing that he may order their intelligence agencies to investigate the possibility of monitoring their relatives.
The disclosure will start on Sunday with the revelation of the numbers of more than 180 journalists, editors, and executives at the Financial Times, CNN, the New York Times, etc.
Nevertheless, the phone number of one freelance Mexican reporter, Cecilio Pineda Brito, appeared, and he was associated with one Mexican client, which led to his murder. His phone disappeared so that they couldn’t make an analysis.
NSO shared that if Pineda’s phone was found, it doesn’t mean that data in the phone led to his death, stressing governments could have revealed his location by other means. He and 25 other Mexican journalists were selected as surveillance candidates over two years.
Without the forensic examination of mobile devices, no one could say if Pegasus infected the phones.
NSO shared: “does not operate the systems that it sells to vetted government customers, and does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets.”
NSO denied false claims by the activists and said it would “continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action.”
NSO Group shared that they sell spyware only to vetted government bodies. The Israeli minister of defense manages the NSO, and getting individual export licenses prior to its surveillance tech, can be sold to a new country!
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NSO reported that they have an industry-leading approach to HR and published excerpts from contracts with customers sharing that they have to use its products only for criminal and national security investigations.
We cannot find evidence that the NSO’s customers didn’t use Pegasus in terrorism and criminal investigations. The broad array of numbers in the list that belong to individuals who seemed to have no link to criminality suggests some NSO clients used the Pegasus project to spy on pro-democracy activists and journalists who are exploring and investigating corruption!
Also, the analysis uncovered sequent correlations between time and date number written into the list and the onset of Pegasus activity on the device, only seconds apart.
Amnesty shared the analysis on four different iPhones with Citizen Lab and confirmed Pegasus infection traces. Citizen Lab conducted a peer-review of Amnesty’s forensic methods, but they were sound.
The consortium’s data analysis shared a minimum of 10 governments who are NSO’s clients, entering numbers into a system: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
NSO’s client country that selected the most numbers was Mexico, with more than 15.000 numbers, and multiple government agencies bought Pegasus. Mexico with UAE selected more than 10.000 numbers.
The Guardian discovered: ‘’The presence of a number in the data does not mean there was an attempt to infect the phone. NSO says there were other possible purposes for numbers being recorded on the list.
Rwanda, Morocco, India, and Hungary denied having used Pegasus to hack the phones of the individuals named in the list. The governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, the UAE, and Dubai did not respond to invitations to comment.
The Pegasus project is likely to spur debates over government surveillance in several countries suspected of using the technology. The investigation suggests the Hungarian government of Viktor Orbán appears to have deployed NSO’s technology as part of his so-called war on the media, targeting investigative journalists in the country as well as the close circle of one of Hungary’s few independent media executives.’’
The data and forensic audit show that Saudi Arabia used the spy tool, the UAE, to find the phones of close associates of the murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Turkish prosecutor was also a target, shared the leaked data.
Claudio Guarnieri runs Amnesty International’s Security Lab, shared that one phone was Pegasus infected, and an NSO’s client in effect take control of the phone, so they extracted the messages, calls, photos, emails, and secretly activated cameras and microphones.
The hacker accesses GPS and hardware sensors, NSO’s clients secure a log of a person’s last movement, so he tracks the location in real-time, with high accuracy. Guarnieri identified proof that NSO has been violated vulnerabilities linked with iMessage, which comes installed on all iPhones and was able to penetrate even the most sophisticated iPhone running the latest version of iOS.
Apple stated: “Security researchers agree iPhone is the safest, most secure consumer mobile device on the market.”