Palestine says Israeli spyware NSO found on phones of three senior officials

Occupied Palestine (QNN)- Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced on Thursday that it has found Pegasus spyware developed by Israeli spyware firm NSO Group on the phones of three senior officials.

Accusing Israel of using the military-grade Pegasus software to eavesdrop on them, the Palestinian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announcement marks the first time Palestinian officials have accused NSO of spying on them, the Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported.

The statement also came less than two hours after the resignation of NSO’s chief executive Itzik Benbenisti, who had only been in the job for two weeks.

Sources said Benbenisti quit after the US commerce department announced it was blacklisting the company for harming “national security interests”.

Earlier this week, software was detected on the phones of six Palestinian human rights activists, three of whom worked for civil society organizations that Israel has controversially labeld as “terrorist” groups.

The spyware can be secretly installed without the victim taking any action and gives full access to their phone, including real-time communications.

Ahmed al-Deek, the assistant Palestinian foreign minister for political affairs, said a “professional Palestinian institution” inspected several phones and detected Pegasus on three of them.

The hacking of the activists’ phones was independently verified by security researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto and by Amnesty International.

“We are 100 percent sure that these three phones were hacked,” al-Deek said. “They belonged to senior officials.”

A Foreign Ministry statement blamed Israel for the hacking, calling it a “blatant and immoral violation of international law” and urged an international boycott of all parties involved.

From a list of more than 50,000 cellphone numbers obtained by the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and the human rights group Amnesty International and shared with 16 news organizations, journalists were able to identify more than 1,000 individuals in 50 countries who were allegedly selected by NSO clients for potential surveillance.

They include 189 journalists, more than 600 politicians and government officials, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists and several heads of state, according to The Washington Post, a consortium member.

The journalists work for organizations including The Associated Press, Reuters, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and The Financial Times.

Amnesty also reported that its forensic researchers had determined that NSO Group’s flagship Pegasus spyware was successfully installed on the phone of Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, just four days after he was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul in 2018.

The Guardian, another consortium member, reported that Amnesty had found traces of Pegasus infections on the cellphones of 15 journalists who let their phones be examined after discovering their number was in the leaked data.

The most numbers on the list, 15,000, were for Mexican phones, with a large share in the Middle East.

NSO Group’s spyware has been implicated in targeted surveillance chiefly in the Middle East and Mexico.

Last week, the U.S. Commerce Department said NSO Group and three other firms are being added to the “entity list,” which limits their access to U.S. components and technology by requiring government permission for exports.

The department said putting these companies on the entity list was part of the Biden administration’s efforts to promote human rights in U.S. foreign policy.

“The United States is committed to aggressively using export controls to hold companies accountable that develop, traffic, or use technologies to conduct malicious activities that threaten the cybersecurity of members of civil society, dissidents, government officials, and organizations here and abroad,” U.S. Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo said in a statement.

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