JERUSALEM – Hacking specialists from around the world warned on Monday that spyware developed by Israeli technology firm NSO Group had been used to target Palestinians affiliated with rights groups recently proscribed by Israel. The Israeli government’s connection with the firm, which was recently blacklisted by the United States, has been reevaluated following the claims.
Front Line Defenders and Citizen Lab, a cyber watchdog from the University of Toronto, performed an investigation into Palestinian phone data and uncovered signs of spyware, according to Citizen Lab’s findings.
An anti-secrecy software company known for selling Pegasus, which was used by authoritarian governments to eavesdrop on phone calls and emails, has been widely condemned for years.
Users can remotely and discreetly access a phone’s information, such as encrypted messages, video, photographs, and contacts, using Pegasus. Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi’s friends, Hungarian investigative journalists, Mexican lawyers, and others have all been targeted by the spyware in the past.
In this case, Front Line Defenders spokesman Adam Shapiro claimed the inquiry did not prove or identify who used Pegasus.
The role of both NSO and Israel is called into doubt, he continued, “but it raises many problems.” Only a limited number of scenarios are possible here, and the Israeli government’s previous acts raise severe suspicions about what’s going on here and serious doubts about any denials the country makes. ”
According to an NSO spokesperson, the corporation won’t say who used the software or against whom it was deployed.
“We cannot confirm or deny the name of our government customers due to contractual and national security issues,” she said. Customers’ monitoring data was not shared with the corporation, she clarified.
In the wake of Israel’s recent outlawing of six Palestinian rights groups it accused of being fronts for a banned militant group, which drew widespread international criticism, and its longstanding support for NSO, which operates under state-issued licences, the latest accusations mark the convergence of two separate diplomatic issues.
Foreign governments cannot utilise Pegasus against Israeli numbers, including as those belonging to Palestinians in proscribed groups, according to Israeli policy. However, the programme might be used against an Israeli phone number by a government body in Israel.
After the new report came out, many people began to wonder if the Israeli government had been using malware against Palestinian human rights activists.
According to the analysis, Pegasus had accessed the phone logs of four employees of the illegal groups. Before their organisations were outlawed last month, Palestinians believed that their phones had been hacked and turned to Front Line Defenders, who partnered with Citizen Lab to examine their phones.
Prime Minister Netanyahu’s administration and Israel’s military denied that Pegasus was used to hack Palestinian cell phones.
NSO was added to a list of foreign companies prohibited from purchasing American goods by the Biden administration last week.
NSO’s software may have been used to target Palestinians, which gives Israel’s decision to ban the six Palestinian organisations a new dimension. Recently, the Israeli authorities claimed these groups were fronts for the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, a militant organisation that is banned in the United States, the European Union, and other nations for its alleged support of terrorism.
As a group, Israeli authorities have been investigating these groups since early this year.
The Israeli Defense Ministry claims, based on material it has not made public, that European governments and institutions donated money to the Popular Front, intending for it to be used for humanitarian and human rights causes. A large amount of extra intelligence, including classified information, was used to designate the six organisations, according to officials in both Europe and the United States.
Neither the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security agency, nor NSO, a company that makes NSO malware, would comment on the content of this additional and sensitive information.
An Israeli Shin Bet spokeswoman indicated that “solid and irrefutable information” had been produced that linked various organisations to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
There was no solid evidence of a conspiracy between the groups and the Popular Front in a Shin Bet document received and validated by the New York Times in May. Israel’s spokesman countered, however, that this summary did not include all of the evidence against the six organisations.
In the 1960s, the Popular Front gained notoriety for a series of hijackings of passenger planes, and in the 2000s, it claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, including the assassination of Israeli cabinet minister Rehavam Zeevi. Israel, the United States, and other countries have classified it as a terrorist organisation.
Israel asserted that the six banned organisations’ money were under the control of the Popular Front.
Defense for Children International-Palestine; Addameer; Al Haq; Bisan; the Union of Palestinian Women’s Committees; and the Union of Agricultural Work Committees were among the six organisations that were singled out.
Israeli and Palestinian authorities have been accused of human rights abuses, and Palestinian groups allege they have been persecuted for their legitimate work to expose them.
The six groups expose violations perpetrated by Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas in the West Bank and Gaza, respectively. They also advocate for the rights of children, women, and farmers, and represent Palestinian detainees in Israeli jails.
Israeli prosecutors, including the current defence minister, Benny Gantz, are investigating Israeli politicians and military leaders for alleged war crimes and have evidence from some of the parties involved. With Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch they have shared information and testimony on a regular basis. They have also been widely cited in the international media, including in the New York Times.
Israeli intelligence agency Shin Bet provided a summary of its investigation into Palestinian factions to European and American donors and authorities in an effort to convince them of the legality of their inquiry. The Intercept and +972 in Israel were the first to receive a copy of the document, which was released to them a few days ago.
As a result of this, instead of focusing on the six organisations, this document focuses on the Health Work Committee’s alleged wrongdoing. Allegations made by two former accountants of the seventh organisation, who were sacked in 2019, are the main focus of this report.
There were two accountants who claimed the other proscribed organisations were all under the authority of members of the Popular Front, but admitted that part of their claims were based on speculation.
Governments in both Ireland and the Netherlands have stated that Israel has not yet given reliable evidence of linkages between the six terrorist organisations they allege to exist.
Israel’s chief of staff, however, said that the leaked dossier was meant to convince Europeans and Americans that a group known as the Health Work Committee was to blame, not the six other organisations, and that more conclusive and secret evidence had been provided to American officials in recent weeks.
No evidence offered to the American government is circumstantial or unsatisfactory, a Shin Bet spokesman stated, rejecting the claim.
Two correspondents, Patrick Kingsley in Jerusalem and Ronen Bergman in Tel Aviv, covered the story. Myra Noveck and Gabby Sobelman contributed to the reporting.