Military-grade spyware licensed by an Israeli firm to governments for tracking terrorists and criminals was used in attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives and two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to an investigation by The Washington Post and 16 media partners.
The phones appeared on a list of more than 50,000 numbers that are concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens and also known to have been clients of the Israeli firm, NSO Group, a worldwide leader in the growing and largely unregulated private spyware industry, the investigation found.
The list does not identify who put the numbers on it, or why, and it is unknown how many of the phones were targeted or surveilled. But forensic analysis of the 37 smartphones shows that many display a tight correlation between time stamps associated with a number on the list and the initiation of surveillance, in some cases as brief as a few seconds.
Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and Amnesty International, a human rights group, had access to the list and shared it with the news organizations, which did further research and analysis. Amnesty’s Security Lab did the forensic analyses on the smartphones.
The numbers on the list are unattributed, but reporters were able to identify more than 1,000 people spanning more than 50 countries through research and interviews on four continents: several Arab royal family members, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists, and more than 600 politicians and government officials — including cabinet ministers, diplomats, and military and security officers. The numbers of several heads of state and prime ministers also appeared on the list.
Among the journalists whose numbers appear on the list, which dates to 2016, are reporters working overseas for several leading news organizations, including a small number from CNN, the Associated Press, Voice of America, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, Le Monde in France, the Financial Times in London and Al Jazeera in Qatar.
The targeting of the 37 smartphones would appear to conflict with the stated purpose of NSO’s licensing of the Pegasus spyware, which the company says is intended only for use in surveilling terrorists and major criminals. The evidence extracted from these smartphones, revealed here for the first time, calls into question pledges by the Israeli company to police its clients for human rights abuses.
The media consortium analyzed the list through interviews and forensic analysis of the phones, and by comparing details with previously reported information about NSO. Amnesty’s Security Lab examined 67 smartphones where attacks were suspected. Of those, 23 were successfully infected and 14 showed signs of attempted penetration.
For the remaining 30, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the phones had been replaced. Fifteen of the phones were Android devices, none of which showed evidence of successful infection. However, unlike iPhones, Androids do not log the kinds of information required for Amnesty’s detective work. Three Android phones showed signs of targeting, such as Pegasus-linked SMS messages.
Amnesty shared backup copies of data on four iPhones with Citizen Lab, which confirmed that they showed signs of Pegasus infection. Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto that specializes in studying Pegasus, also conducted a peer review of Amnesty’s forensic methods and found them to be sound.
In lengthy responses, NSO called the investigation’s findings exaggerated and baseless. It also said it does not operate the spyware licensed to its clients and “has no insight” into their specific intelligence activities.
NSO describes its customers as 60 intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies in 40 countries, although it will not confirm the identities of any of them, citing client confidentiality obligations. The consortium found many of the phone numbers in at least 10 country clusters, which were subjected to deeper analysis: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Citizen Lab also has found evidence that all 10 have been clients of NSO, according to Bill Marczak, a senior research fellow.
Forbidden Stories organized the media consortium’s investigation, titled the Pegasus Project, and Amnesty provided analysis and technical support but had no editorial input. Amnesty has openly criticized NSO’s spyware business and supported an unsuccessful lawsuit against the company in an Israeli court seeking to have its export license revoked. After the investigation began, several reporters in the consortium learned that they or their family members had been successfully attacked with Pegasus spyware.
Beyond the personal intrusions made possible by smartphone surveillance, the widespread use of spyware has emerged as a leading threat to democracies worldwide, critics say. Journalists under surveillance cannot safely gather sensitive news without endangering themselves and their sources. Opposition politicians cannot plot their campaign strategies without those in power anticipating their moves. Human rights workers cannot work with vulnerable people — some of whom are victims of their own governments — without exposing them to renewed abuse.
For example, Amnesty’s forensics found evidence that Pegasus was targeted at the two women closest to Saudi columnist Khashoggi, who wrote for The Post’s Opinions section. The phone of his fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, was successfully infected during the days after his murder in Turkey on Oct. 2, 2018, according to a forensic analysis by Amnesty’s Security Lab. Also on the list were the numbers of two Turkish officials involved in investigating his dismemberment by a Saudi hit team. Khashoggi also had a wife, Hanan Elatr, whose phone was targeted by someone using Pegasus in the months before his killing. Amnesty was unable to determine whether the hack was successful.
“This is nasty software — like eloquently nasty,” said Timothy Summers, a former cybersecurity engineer at a U.S. intelligence agency and now director of IT at Arizona State University. With it “one could spy on almost the entire world population. … There’s not anything wrong with building technologies that allows you to collect data; it’s necessary sometimes. But humanity is not in a place where we can have that much power just accessible to anybody.”
Which was of course the point to the entire Snowden operation, and the successful hacks that followed. Who counts as a "major criminal" or "terrorist" depends entirely on perspective, you see. Of course it was going to be abused once the genie was unleashed from the bottle. Information warfare is the battlefield of this century, and we're in the scenario where the cyberwar equivalent of the Manhattan Project was leaked to everyone with ears to listen.
So yes, the rise of the private information security company is real, and it's really awful. It was inevitable, to be sure, but it's one of Putin's crowning achievements in the field.
Now, we have to live with it.