Spy scandal in Israel: Company accused of facilitating surveillance of journalists

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Activists, journalists, oppositionists and dissidents around the world were spied on thanks to the software created by Israeli company NSO Group, according to a large survey published yesterday in various media and intensifies the suspicions that have existed for a long time about it.

Founded in 2011 in Tel Aviv, the company has commercially available Pegasus software, which, after being unknowingly installed on any smartphone, allows the interception of messages, photos, contacts, and calls.

The NSO, which is often accused of playing the game of authoritarian regimes, says its software is used solely to monitor and dismantle criminal or terrorist networks.

The survey, published yesterday by seventeen international media outlets, including the French newspaper Le Monde, Britain’s The Guardian and the US’s The Washington Post, calls into question its credibility.

Their research was based on a list provided by the Forbidden Stories collective and the non-governmental organization Amnesty International, which includes, according to them, 50,000 telephone numbers that had been targeted by NSO customers since 2016 to be monitored.

These include the numbers of at least 180 journalists, 600 politicians, men and women, 85 human rights defenders, 65 business leaders… , in Mexico.

The list includes Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto, who was assassinated a few weeks after appearing before him. And also the numbers of correspondents of various international media, from the Wall Street Journal to CNN and France 24, the Mediapart website, the El País newspaper, the French Agency…

The list also includes several political figures – one head of state and two heads of government in Europe – whose names will be revealed in the coming days.

37 telephones

Journalists conducting the investigation dubbed the Pegasus Project met some of the owners of the numbers and assembled 67 telephones, which were examined by technicians in an Amnesty International laboratory.

It was confirmed that 37, 10 of them in India had been compromised or attempted to be compromised by NSO malware, according to yesterday’s reports.

Two of the devices belonged to women close to Saudi journalist Jamal Kasogi, who was assassinated in 2018 at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul by a group of agents sent from Riyadh; one belonged to his fiancée.

For another 30 devices the results are not final, in many cases because the owners of the numbers changed phones.

“There is a strong correlation between the time the numbers appear in the list and the start of tracking,” The Washington Post reported.

This analysis is added to the study conducted in 2020 by the Citizen Lab of the University of Toronto, which confirmed the presence of Pegasus software on the phones of dozens of employees of the Al Jazeera television network in Qatar.

The WhatsApp platform had also reported in 2019 that some of its users in India were being spied on with this software.

“False allegations”

The NSO group, as in any previous case, “categorically denies the false accusations” made in the investigation.

They are based on “false assumptions and unconfirmed theories” and “the sources who provided this information have no basis in fact,” she said on her website, warning that she intended to file defamation lawsuits.

NSO is not – after all – the only Israeli company suspected of providing spyware to governments with little regard for human rights, with the green light of the Israeli Ministry of Defense.

Saito Tech Ltd’s DevilsTongue software, better known as Candiru, was used against about 100 politicians, dissidents, journalists and activists, Microsoft and Citizen Lab experts said on Thursday.

Israeli companies, such as NICE Systems or Verint, provided technologies to the Uzbek and Kazakh intelligence services, as well as to the Colombian security forces, the NGO Privacy International estimated in a 2016 report.

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