Six Palestinian activists, and one senior individual from the Palestinian Foreign Ministry have found traces of the Pegasus Spyware on their mobile phones, according to the findings of the Dublin based Front Line Defenders advocacy group. The findings, confirmed by the Toronto based Citizen Lab and Amnesty International’s Security Lab, reaffirmed the finding that officials from 4 out of the 6 groups that Israel declared terrorist organisations in October had had their phones hacked prior to the declaration. This alludes to a much more sinister motive, especially in light of Tel Aviv’s recent declaration of the groups as terrorist organisations, even in the supposedly Palestinian controlled Westbank, in the days prior to Front Line Defenders’ revelations.
The organisations have since called on the UN to investigate, with most alleging Israeli security’s hand in the surveillance, especially in light of Israel’s activities in trying to counter exposure of its human rights abuse, and because the NSO group, which owns the software, is only licenced to export it to states, with Israeli security only being able to supposedly spy on Israelis.
Pegasus is a software, which has been used by countries, including Saudi Arabia and the UAE, to spy on its citizens, and was found on the phone of assassinated Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. It allows the user to control the phone, including making calls, accessing the camera and microphone, and even sending messages from the infected phone. It is significant that most phones found with the software, were iPhones, alluding to the phone’s popularity, or worse, it’s supposed weakness in relation to spyware penetration.
The US recently blacklisted the NSO group, in light of its dire impact on human rights and US national interests.
Speaking to Radio Islam International, Ubai Abboudi, a US citizen whose phone was hacked, pointed out the intrusive nature of the spying, saying it “came as a total surprise for me, the hack. I never thought that they would do that. It was really shocking. And the idea, the intrusion on my privacy, the length of time, they did it to my phone in February, so, talking about the period of eight months of continuous surveillance from my phone… this is the phone that I use to make my business calls, contact diplomats, contact activists. This is the same phone I use to take pictures of myself and my family.”
Abboudi also pointed out the various human rights activities that the activists are involved in, arguing that this was a method of how Israel tries to silence dissent, suppress exposure of its poor human rights record, and socially engineer the lives of Palestinians, which Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch recently concluded was a form of apartheid. Significantly, Abboudi is a US citizen, whom Israel is not allowed to spy on, but will face no consequence, due to the close relationship between the US and Israel.
Other organisations who had individuals targeted included Addameer, the Palestinian prisoner rights organization, and Al Haq, which is involved in exposing Israeli human rights abuses, and who initially approached Front Line Defenders. Significantly, the Pegasus version used on these phones were non-click, meaning that they did not rely on opening an erroneous email or link, but were installed and controlled without any real security breach from the user, making protection almost impossible.