Massive data leak reveals Israeli NSO Group's spyware used to target activists, journalists, and political leaders globally
NSO Group’s spyware has been used to facilitate human rights violations around the world on a massive scale, according to a major investigation into the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets, including heads of state, activists, and journalists, including Jamal Khashoggi’s family.
The Pegasus Project is a ground-breaking collaboration by more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media non-profit, with the technical support of Amnesty International, who conducted cutting-edge forensic tests on mobile phones to identify traces of the spyware.
“The Pegasus Project lays bare how NSO’s spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril,” said Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International.
“These revelations blow apart any claims by NSO that such attacks are rare and down to rogue use of their technology. While the company claims its spyware is only used for legitimate criminal and terror investigations, it’s clear its technology facilitates systemic abuse. They paint a picture of legitimacy, while profiting from widespread human rights violations.”
“Clearly, their actions pose larger questions about the wholesale lack of regulation that has created a wild west of rampant abusive targeting of activists and journalists. Until this company and the industry as a whole can show it is capable of respecting human rights, there must be an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology.”
In a written response to Forbidden Stories and its media partners, NSO Group said it “firmly denies… false claims” in the report. It wrote that the consortium’s reporting was based on “wrong assumptions” and “uncorroborated theories” and reiterated that the company was on a “life-saving mission”.
At the centre of this investigation is NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware which, when surreptitiously installed on victims’ phones, allows an attacker complete access to the device’s messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, calls and contacts.
From the leaked data and their investigations, Forbidden Stories and its media partners identified potential NSO clients in 11 countries: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
NSO Group has not taken adequate action to stop the use of its tools for unlawful targeted surveillance of activists and journalists, despite the fact that it either knew, or arguably ought to have known, that this was taking place.
“As a first step, NSO Group must immediately shut down clients’ systems where there is credible evidence of misuse. The Pegasus Project provides this in abundance,” said Agnès Callamard.
During the investigation, evidence has also emerged that family members of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi were targeted with Pegasus software before and after his murder in Istanbul on 2 October 2018 by Saudi operatives, despite repeated denials from NSO Group.
Amnesty International’s Security Lab established that Pegasus spyware was successfully installed on the phone of Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz just four days after his murder.
His wife, Hanan Elatr was also repeatedly targeted with the spyware between September 2017 and April 2018 along with other family members, including his son, Abdullah.
In a statement, the NSO Group responded to the Pegasus Project allegations saying that its “technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi”.
The company said that it “previously investigated this claim, immediately after the heinous murder, which again, is being made without validation”.
The investigation has so far identified at least 180 journalists in 20 countries who were selected for potential targeting with NSO spyware between 2016 to June 2021, including in Azerbaijan, Hungary, India and Morocco, countries where crackdowns against independent media have intensified.