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Israeli Firm Monitors Phones of More than 180 Journalists and Activists around the World, including Saudi Arabia & Bahrain: The Guardian

2021-07-20 - 3:50 am

Bahrain Mirror: The British "The Guardian" newspaper revealed that the Israeli technology firm NSO Group targeted editor of the Financial Times and more than 180 editors, investigative reporters and other journalists around the world through surveillance program provided to its government clients across the world, including Saudi Arabia and Bahrain.

Roula Khalaf, who became the first female editor in the newspaper's history last year, was selected as a potential target throughout 2018.

Analysis of the leaked data suggests that Khalaf's phone was selected as a possible target by the United Arab Emirates (UAE). At the time, Khalaf was a deputy editor at the FT. A spokesperson for the Financial Times said: "Press freedoms are vital, and any unlawful state interference or surveillance of journalists is unacceptable."

A successful Pegasus infection gives NSO customers access to all data stored on the device. An attack on a journalist could expose a reporter's confidential sources as well as allowing NSO's government client to read their chat messages, harvest their address book, listen to their calls, track their precise movements and even record their conversations by activating the device's microphone.

In addition to the UAE, detailed analysis of the data indicates that the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia all selected journalists as possible surveillance targets.

It is not possible to know conclusively whether phones were successfully infected with Pegasus without analysis of devices by forensic experts. Amnesty International's Security Lab, which can detect successful Pegasus infections, found traces of the spyware on the mobile phones of 15 journalists who had agreed to have their phones examined after discovering their number was in the leaked data.

Among the journalists confirmed by analysis to have been hacked by Pegasus were Siddharth Varadarajan and Paranjoy Guha Thakurta ftom India, Omar Radi from Morocco, Khadija Ismayilova from Azerbaijan, Bradley Hope, Gregg Carlstrom and Edwy Plenel.

Carlos Martínez de la Serna, a program director at the nonprofit Committee to Protect Journalists, said the use of spyware to attack journalists and their sources was becoming an increasingly serious issue for his organization.

"Putting surveillance on a journalist has a very strong, chilling effect. Our devices are key in the reporting activity, and it exposes the journalist's contacts, it exposes the journalist's sources, exposes the journalist's materials," he said. "It targets the journalistic activity in a way that almost fully impedes it in situations where journalists are being threatened."

Martínez said there was an urgent need for countries to begin regulating companies exporting surveillance capabilities, particularly where reporters were likely to be at risk. "There are not enough safeguards about the export of the software," he said. "Spyware has been sold directly to governments with terrible press freedom records, which is hard to understand."

NSO, an Israeli firm that manufactures spyware, claims that the program is used against "terrorists and criminals". Its principal product, Pegasus, is capable of compromising a phone, extracting all of the data stored on the device and activating its microphone to eavesdrop on conversations.

It has been reported that 180 journalists from a number of media outlets around the world, including The Financial Times and The Economist, as well as businessmen, clerics, academics and staff from various organizations and institutions in various governments, including presidents, prime ministers and presidents were targeted. The list also includes the family members of a governor of a particular country who may have instructed his country's intelligence to track their activities.

NSO firm claimed that it sells it spyware for government uses only and that it stands against human rights violations. It added that it does not have access to the data of its customers' targets.

The company said the "claims are false", noting that it will continue to investigate the misuse of its program and will take appropriate action.

In 2019, WhatsApp sued Israeli technology firm NSO Group, accusing it using the Facebook-owned messaging service to conduct cyberespionage on journalists, human rights activists and others in a number of countries including Bahrain.

In 2018, Citizen Lab researcher Bill Marczak said the laboratory was conducting an additional investigation to locate suspicious messages that included electronic spy software developed by the same company, and said in a report that it targeted Amnesty International and a Saudi activist, revealing that the spyware was also used in Bahrain.

The use of the software to hack the phones of Al-Jazeera reporters and a Moroccan journalist has been reported previously by Citizen Lab, a research center at the University of Toronto, and Amnesty International. Among the numbers found on the list were two belonging to women close to Saudi-born journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in his country's consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

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