Journalists and activists trapped in Israeli spyware scandal
European politicians and media groups expressed outrage on Monday over reports that an Israeli company provided malware used by governments to spy on activists, journalists, lawyers and politicians in several countries.
The NSO group and its Pegasus malware – capable of turning on a phone’s camera or microphone and harvesting its data – have been making headlines since 2016, when researchers accused it of helping spy on a dissident in the United Arab Emirates.
A collaborative investigation by The Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde and other outlets, based on a leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers, found that espionage may be much more important than it is realized. thought before.
The leaked figures are believed to relate to people identified by NSO clients as potential surveillance targets.
They include one linked to a murdered Mexican journalist and family members of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said espionage, if confirmed, was “totally unacceptable”, while French government spokesman Gabriel Attal called it ” extremely shocking “.
UN chief of rights Michelle Bachelet called for better regulation of surveillance technologies and Reporters Without Borders chief Christophe Deloire said the revelations had caused “shock and disgust”.
– Authoritarian regimes –
It is not known how many devices were actually targeted or monitored and NSO has denied any wrongdoing.
But claims that countries like Azerbaijan, Hungary, India and Morocco, where authorities have cracked down on independent media, have spied on dissident journalists at home and abroad have sparked outrage. .
The other countries that made up most of the numbers on the list were Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
The French investigation site Mediapart affirmed that the phones of its founder Edwy Plenel and one of his journalists were among those targeted by the Moroccan intelligence services and declared that he had filed a criminal complaint.
Morocco has denied these allegations, saying it “has never acquired computer software to infiltrate communications devices”.
– ‘Rogue’ operators –
Pegasus is a highly invasive tool that can turn on a target’s phone camera and microphone, as well as access data on the device, effectively turning a phone into a pocket spy.
In some cases, it can be installed without having to prompt a user to initiate a download.
NSO insists that it is only intended for use in the fight against terrorism and other crimes, and that any other use is the work of “rogue” operators – claims denied by Amnesty International.
“NSO spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, putting countless lives at risk,” Amnesty International chief said , Agnes Callamard, in a press release.
“It is clear that its technology facilitates systemic abuse.”
The Post said the numbers on the list were not being assigned, but other media involved in the project were able to identify more than 1,000 people in more than 50 countries.
They included several members of Arab royal families, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists and more than 600 politicians and government officials, including heads of state, prime ministers and ministers. .
– “Compromised” journalists –
The survey identified at least 180 journalists in 20 countries who were selected for potential targeting with Pegasus between 2016 and June 2021.
Among them were journalists from Agence France-Presse, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, El Pais, The Associated Press, Le Monde, Bloomberg, The Economist and Reuters, The Guardian reported.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, a senior investigative journalist in India, said Amnesty International informed him that his phone and his privacy had been “compromised” in 2018.
“It also puts my sources at risk. People who speak to you on condition of anonymity, if they are compromised, it’s terrible,” he told AFP. “It’s bad for democracy, it’s bad for journalism. It’s terrible.”
The list included 15,000 issues in Mexico – including a number believed to be linked to Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda, killed in 2017 – and 300 in India, including prominent politicians and journalists.
In Mexico, the Aristegui Noticias news site reported on Monday that family members and President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s cardiologist were spied on between 2016 and 2017, while he was leader of the opposition.
The president himself was spared because he “apparently does not use a personal cell phone,” according to the report.
India’s main opposition figure, Rahul Gandhi, has been selected twice as a potential surveillance target, The Guardian reported.
Indian Home Secretary Amit Shah denied the information, saying it was aimed “at humiliating India on the world stage, peddling the same old narratives about our nation and derailing the development trajectory of India “.
Hungarian Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told reporters that Budapest had “no knowledge of this kind of data collection”.
– Denial –
NSO Group, which is based in Israel’s high-tech hub in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, has denied any wrongdoing.
He denied Sunday, calling the investigation “full of flawed assumptions and unsubstantiated theories,” and threatening libel lawsuits.
“We strongly deny the false claims made in their report,” NSO said.
He said he was “in no way associated” with Khashoggi’s murder, adding that he sold “only to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of controlled governments.”
The Washington Post said a forensic analysis revealed that two women close to Khashoggi had been hacked. He was assassinated in 2018 by a Saudi squad.
Hungary denies using Pegasus spyware as opposition screams scandal
Budapest (AFP) July 19, 2021 – Hungary on Monday denied media reports that it used secret software to infiltrate the smartphones of investigative journalists and other public figures.
“The government has no knowledge of this type of data collection,” Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told a press conference, adding that the Hungarian civil intelligence agency was not using “in any way “the Pegasus software.
The media reported on Sunday that governments in several countries around the world had used spyware technology developed by the Israeli group NSO to infiltrate the smartphones of tens of thousands of people.
Hungary was the only EU country named on a list of leaked phone numbers.
Phones monitored in Hungary, according to reports, included those of two investigative journalists, the owner of a government-critical news site, an opposition mayor and several lawyers.
Janos Stummer of the opposition Jobbik party, which heads the Parliamentary National Security Commission, demanded “consequences”.
Stummer sought to convene the committee to interview intelligence chiefs, and Szijjarto said the intelligence chief would attend the meeting if summoned.
Committee vice-chairman Janos Halasz, a member of Orban’s ruling Fidesz who holds the majority on the committee, however, said the body did not need to meet.
The “left” press reports were “baseless,” said Halasz.
The National Association of Hungarian Journalists (MUOSZ) said it was “shocked” by the revelations.
“If this is the case, it is unacceptable, scandalous and illegal, full information must be disclosed to the public immediately,” the association said in a statement.
The reports “put the country to shame,” said Budapest mayor Gergely Karacsony, who hopes to run against Orban in next year’s parliamentary elections.
“The government owes answers,” he said.
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“You Were Not Paranoid”: Mexico at the Heart of Spyware Scandal
Mexico City (AFP) July 19, 2021
Journalist Marcela Turati has always suspected the Mexican authorities of spying on her. Now, she’s almost certain, after being on a leaked list at the center of a global spyware scandal. “People have written to me saying, ‘Look, you weren’t crazy, you weren’t paranoid,'” she told AFP on Monday. Some 15,000 Mexican smartphone numbers were among more than 50,000 that have been selected by customers of the Israeli company NSO Group for potential surveillance, according to an international media investigation.