Phones of Palestinian NGO workers infected with Pegasus spyware, rights groups say

Eavesdropping tool is also believed to have been used by Israeli security agencies against human rights campaigners

Phones of Palestinian NGO workers infected with Pegasus spyware, rights groups say

Phones of three staff members of a Palestinian rights group have been found to have been infected with the Pegasus spyware, two rights groups have said.

Managing director at the Al Mezan Center for Human Rights, Irfan Hawwash, said the person he spoke to was Palestinian and said they had identified six or seven phones that were infected.

“In the last four months, our centre was targeted with Pegasus. The people here – our staff – have been affected and affected badly,” Hawwash told the Guardian.

“Our people had their personal data stolen from them because the owner was able to access their accounts,” Hawwash said.

The director of another Palestinian human rights group, Ain Shams, said it had known since November 2016 about attempts to infiltrate its systems but, having failed to identify the agent, had turned the matter over to the authorities.

“We have been looking for information and discovering various covert operations to penetrate the organisation but failed to reach the person responsible,” said Samir Awad.

Managing director of Al Mezan, Irfan Hawwash, said staff at the organisation had been targeted with the Pegasus spyware. Photograph: Ahmed Gomaa

The Israeli security agency, the Shin Bet, had contacted Ain Shams four months ago and asked for help to identify the source of the cyber attacks, Awad said.

A notice on the Shin Bet website in February said the agency had arrested four individuals with suspected links to the possible expulsion of the long-time Israeli spy Jonathan Abraham in 2015.

Although the interrogation procedures were classified, a senior Shin Bet official said the agency had “numerous leads” identifying the group as the source of spyware affecting some of the country’s most sensitive organisations, including Israeli diplomatic missions abroad.

In 2014, four Israeli members of an international team involved in monitoring Palestinian issues were arrested by the Shin Bet. They were later sentenced to prison terms of up to 25 years.

An intelligence document leaked by whistleblower Edward Snowden in 2013 said a branch of the Mossad was conducting espionage operations in Yemen, Qatar, Jordan, Syria and Africa.

Spyware designer Pegasus was originally developed by Israeli firms ElastiGuard and SecurCounter, who then sold it to a string of foreign customers.

According to the firm’s official website, Pegasus is able to infiltrate networks “based on the configuration of the specific user. We can listen, view, monitor and record the communications of the target.”

Apart from Mossad, its customers include groups linked to terrorists, arms manufacturers and senior US government figures. Its current price tag on Indiegogo is $350.

It is believed Israeli authorities may have been trying to blackmail the ministry of defence by using information gleaned from Pegasus on activists and activists to determine where to conduct military operations.

Majed Abul Qizr, a security expert, said Israeli authorities had a longstanding interest in human rights work – “the objective was to infiltrate human rights groups into understanding Israeli policy and operations”.

He said authorities knew human rights workers were “strategic partners with western partners. Such alliances had “all the hallmarks of a coup”, which was where serious concerns remained for the information security community.

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Both Al Mezan and the Ain Shams group were engaged in the same fight against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory. “We had definitely become a target to the Israeli security services,” said Awad.

There were other signs that even non-governmental groups were being targeted, he said. “The one thing I’m concerned about and scared about is how many other organisations and citizens are involved and how many people are involved,” he said.

Awad said the Shin Bet had assured them that their information was safe, but a Shin Bet spokesman would not comment on reports about the ongoing investigations.

“What they have to tell us is yes, in the past they were under the pressure of such espionage groups. The information we got was part of a volume of information from other intelligence organizations that was used by the Shin Bet,” he said.

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