Palestinians Were Targeted by Israeli Firm’s Spyware, Experts Say
The hacking renewed scrutiny of the relationship between the Israeli government and the NSO Group, a surveillance company blacklisted by the United States.,
JERUSALEM — International hacking experts said on Monday that Palestinians belonging to rights groups recently outlawed by Israel had been targeted by spyware made by the Israeli technology firm NSO Group. The accusations put the relationship between the Israeli government and the company, recently blacklisted by the United States, under renewed scrutiny.
The findings were presented in an analysis conducted by Front Line Defenders, a Dublin-based rights group, which found evidence of the spyware during an assessment of the Palestinians’ phone data that was later confirmed by Citizen Lab, a cyber watchdog affiliated with the University of Toronto, and Amnesty International.
NSO has been criticized for years for selling its spyware program, Pegasus, to clients including authoritarian governments that used the program to hack the phones of lawyers, dissidents, journalists, activists and politicians in dozens of countries.
Pegasus allows its users to remotely and secretly penetrate a phone, monitor its location, and extract contents including encrypted messages, video, photos and contacts. Those targeted by the spyware in the past include people close to Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi dissident and columnist murdered by Saudi agents in 2018; investigative journalists in Hungary; and lawyers in Mexico.
Adam Shapiro, a spokesman for Front Line Defenders, said that the investigation did not definitively prove or identify who deployed Pegasus in this case.
“But it raises a lot of questions as to the role not only of NSO but also of Israel,” he said. “There are only so many options that could be plausible here — and the previous actions of the Israeli government raise real questions about what’s going on here and serious doubts about any denials that the government makes.”
An NSO spokeswoman said that the company would not say who used the software and that it did not know whom the program was used against.
“Due to contractual and national security considerations, we cannot confirm or deny the identity of our government customers,” she said. The company was not privy to the details of individuals monitored by its customers, she added.
The latest accusations, first reported by The Associated Press, mark the convergence of what had previously been two separate diplomatic issues for Israel: its outlawing last month of six Palestinian rights groups it accused of being fronts for a banned militant group, which attracted widespread international criticism, and its longstanding support for NSO, which operates under state-issued licenses.
According to Israeli government policy, Pegasus cannot be used by a foreign government against Israeli numbers, such as those belonging to the Palestinians in the outlawed groups. An Israeli government agency, however, would have the authority to use the software against an Israeli number.
This policy, coupled with the accusations in the new analysis, raised questions about whether the Israeli government had used the spyware against the Palestinian rights advocates.
The analysis said that Pegasus had penetrated the phones of four employees of the outlawed groups, based on analysis of their phone logs. The Palestinians suspected that their phones had been hacked shortly before their organizations were outlawed last month and they asked for assistance from Front Line Defenders, which worked with Citizen Lab to screen their phones.
The Israeli prime minister’s office and the Israeli Defense Ministry denied that Pegasus had been used to hack the Palestinians’ phones.
The Biden administration imposed sanctions on NSO last week, adding it to a list of foreign firms barred from buying American products.
The suggestion that NSO’s software was used to target Palestinians adds a new dimension to Israel’s decision to outlaw the six Palestinian groups. Last month, the Israeli government claimed that the organizations were fronts that raised funds for the banned militant group, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, which is considered a terrorist organization by the United States, the European Union and other countries.
The groups, which have been under Israeli investigation since early this year, collectively denied the Israeli allegations.
Citing secret evidence that it has not released publicly, the Israeli Defense Ministry said that the groups had taken donations from European countries and institutions that were meant to be used for humanitarian and rights-related activity — and instead funneled that money to the Popular Front. Officials said that the designation of the six organizations was based on extensive additional intelligence, including classified information that was presented to several intelligence services and law enforcement agencies in Europe and the United States.
The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, declined to answer questions regarding the content of this additional and classified information, or whether it was obtained with NSO spyware.
“Solid and unequivocal information was presented, linking the activities of the relevant organizations to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine,” a Shin Bet spokesman said.
A Shin Bet document from May summarizing part of that investigation, obtained and verified by The New York Times, provided no conclusive evidence of a conspiracy between the groups and the Popular Front. However, an Israeli official said that this summary did not detail the main evidence against the six groups.
The Popular Front rose to prominence in the 1960s, when its members hijacked several passenger aircraft, and it went on to claim responsibility for attacks during a Palestinian uprising in the 2000s, including the assassination of Rehavam Zeevi, an Israeli cabinet minister. It is designated a terrorist group by Israel, the United States and other countries.
Israel said that the Popular Front’s members controlled the finances of the six outlawed groups.
They say they are being targeted to silence the legitimate work of Palestinian organizations to highlight rights infringements by both the Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
The six groups are variously involved in documenting abuses by Israel; by the Palestinian Authority which governs the West Bank; and by Hamas, which rules Gaza. They also represent Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails and promote the rights of children, women and farmers.
Some of the groups provided evidence to prosecutors at the International Criminal Court who are investigating Israeli politicians and military officials, including the current defense minister, Benny Gantz, for possible war crimes. They have often shared material and testimony with leading international rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, and have frequently been cited in the international media, including in The New York Times.
The document summarizing parts of the Shin Bet’s investigation into the Palestinian groups was originally provided by the intelligence agency to the groups’ European donors and American officials in an attempt to persuade the latter of their investigation’s legitimacy. A version of it was first leaked last week to an Israeli news outlet, +972, and an American partner, The Intercept.
But instead of detailing specific evidence against the six groups, the document focuses on allegations against a seventh organization, the Health Work Committee. It mainly contains allegations, obtained under Israeli interrogation, by two former accountants of that seventh organization who were fired from their posts in 2019.
The two accountants claimed that the other outlawed organizations were all controlled by Popular Front members, but at times conceded that some of those allegations were based on conjecture.
The Irish and Dutch governments have said that Israel has not yet provided credible evidence of the links between the six groups and terrorism.
But an Israeli official said that the purpose of the leaked dossier was to persuade Europeans and Americans of the guilt of the Health Work Committee, not the six other groups, and that more conclusive and secretive evidence about the six organizations had been provided to American officials in recent weeks.
“We reject the claim that the material presented to various American entities is circumstantial and unsatisfactory,” a Shin Bet spokeswoman said.
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem and Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv. Gabby Sobelman contributed reporting from Rehovot, Israel; and Myra Noveck from Jerusalem.