International rights group Amnesty International said that a foreign government opposed to its work was “cyberstalking” its employees – and it was using Israeli-made software to do it. According to a report by the group, one of its workers nearly fell victim to a rogue e-mail message that was set to install the malware on his personal device – and that the hackers who were behind this sought to spy on the worker, monitoring his phone calls and using the information in a destructive manner.
The software was apparently installed when the worker got a message in Arabic that appeared to be suspicious. The message contained details of a protest that was set to be held outside the Saudi Embassy in Washington, with a link to a site. The group’s technical staff determined that the site was “poisoned,” and that clicking on the link would enable the hackers behind the site to install the malware on the victim’s device.
The malware, called Pegasus, was produced by an Israeli firm called NSO Group. “NSO Group is known to only sell its spyware to governments. We therefore believe that this was a deliberate attempt to infiltrate Amnesty International by a government hostile to our human rights work,” said Joshua Franco, Amnesty International’s Head of Technology and Human Rights. “The potent state hacking tools manufactured by NSO Group allow for an extraordinarily invasive form of surveillance. A smartphone infected with Pegasus is essentially controlled by the attacker – it can relay phone calls, photos, messages and more, directly to the operator. This chilling attack on Amnesty International highlights the grave risk posed to activists around the world by this kind of surveillance technology.”
In a statement to Amnesty International, NSO Group said that their product “is intended to be used exclusively for the investigation and prevention of crime and terrorism” and that any other use violates their policies and contracts. If an allegation arises concerning a violation of our contract or inappropriate use of our technology, as Amnesty has offered, we investigate the issue and take appropriate action based on those findings. We welcome any specific information that can assist us in further investigating of the matter,” NSO Group said.