Spyware from the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group was detected on the mobile phones of six Palestinian human rights activists, in the first known instance of Palestinian activists being targeted by the military-grade Pegasus spyware.
The non-profit Frontline Defenders disclosed its findings on Monday in a joint technical report together with Amnesty International and the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which independently confirmed the results.
It is not clear who placed the NSO spyware, which surreptitiously gives intruders access to everything a person stores and does on their mobile phone, including real-time communications.
Three of the hacked Palestinians work for civil society groups. The others do not, and wish to remain anonymous, Frontline Defenders says.
Among those hacked is Ubai Aboudi, a 37-year-old economist and US citizen who runs the Bisan Center for Research and Development in Ramallah, in the occupied West Bank. The group is one of the six slapped with terrorist designations by Israel last month.
Aboudi said he lost “any sense of safety” through the “dehumanising” hack of a phone that is at his side day and night and holds photos of his three children. He said his wife, the first three nights after learning of the hack, “didn’t sleep from the idea of having such deep intrusions into our privacy”.
He was especially concerned about eavesdroppers being privy to his communications with foreign diplomats. The researchers’ examination of Aboudi’s phone determined it was infected by Pegasus in February.
The Irish-based Frontline Defenders considers Israel the main suspect. The first two intrusions were identified on October 19 and three days after the Israeli Defence Minister Benny Gantz declared the six Palestinian civil society groups to be “terrorist” organisations.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, speaking from Ramallah, said Frontline Defenders is “not absolutely alleging that Israel is behind this,” but that the “timing of all this is very interesting.”
The other two hacked Palestinians who agreed to be named are researcher Ghassan Halaika, of the Al-Haq rights group, and lawyer Salah Hammouri of Addameer.
Al-Haq has urged the United Nations to investigate the claims. “We call on the United Nations to launch an investigation to disclose the party that stood behind using this programme on the phones of human rights activists, a move that put their lives at risk,” Tahseen Elayyan, legal researcher at Al-Haq, told Reuters on Monday.
Israel has provided little evidence publicly to support the “terrorism” designation, which the Palestinian groups say aims to dry up their funding and muzzle opposition to Israeli military rule.
At a press conference on Monday called for by the six organisations, Sahar Francis, the Director General of Addameer appealed for international support and protection.
“We’ve received supportive statements from overseas but this is insufficient. We need pressure to be exerted on Israel to force it to rescind its decision and to stop harrassing human rights organisations,” Francis told Al Jazeera.
She said that although the organisations were determined to continue their work most of her team had not been able to sleep due to stress.
“Our organisations could be imminently closed, our homes could be raided by the Israeli military and we could be arrested, while our assets could be confiscated including our funds in the bank.”
Andrew Anderson, executive director at Frontline Defenders, said the NSO Group cannot be trusted to ensure its spyware is not used illegally by its customers and says Israel should face international reproach if it does not bring the company to heel.
“If the Israeli government refuses to take action then this should have consequences in terms of the regulation of trade with Israel,” he told The Associated Press news agency via email.
Mohammed al-Maskati, the researcher who discovered the hacks, said he was first alerted on October 16 by Halaika, whose phone was determined to have been hacked in July 2020.
“The methods of surveillance and the equipment used were almost the same as those used in the earlier surveillance of Al Jazeera journalists and human rights activists in the United Arab Emirates,” said al-Maskati, addressing the same Ramallah conference via video-link from Bahrain.
He also said that further forensic investigation of 75 iPhones used by Palestinian human rights defenders and employees of civil society organisations had revealed that at least five additional devices were also tapped into.
Asked about the allegations that its software was used against Palestinian activists, NSO Group said in a statement to the AP that it sells only to government agencies for use against “serious crime and terror”. It added that it is not privy to the identities of those who governments decide to hack.
The company had previously said the exported versions of Pegasus cannot be used to hack Israeli phone numbers, but the report found four of the six hacked phones had been using SIM cards issued by Israeli telecom companies. It also said its software cannot be used to target US numbers.
NSO Group sparked outrage from rights groups earlier this year after an investigation by international media outlets revealed the firm’s Pegasus spyware was used by security forces and authoritarian governments in several countries, with Israel taking heat for lax oversight of its digital surveillance industry.
The administration of US President Joe Biden last week blacklisted the NSO Group and a lesser-known Israeli competitor, Candiru, for developing and supplying spyware to foreign governments “that used these tools to maliciously”.
The technology has been used against journalists, rights activists and political dissidents from Mexico to Saudi Arabia since 2015, according to organisations documenting the abuses.
Israel’s Defence Ministry approves the export of spyware produced by NSO Group and other private Israeli companies that recruit from the country’s top cyber-capable military units. Critics say the process is opaque.