The mobile phones of a senior Human Rights Watch (HRW) staff member are alleged to have been repeatedly hacked by a client of NSO Group at a time when she was investigating the catastrophic August 2020 explosion that killed more than 200 people in Beirut.
The alleged hacking of Lama Fakih, a US-Lebanese citizen, and director of crisis and conflict at HRW, marks the latest example of how NSO’s powerful surveillance tool, Pegasus, has been used by the company’s clients to target campaigners and journalists.
HRW said that Fakih had been alerted by Apple on Nov. 24 last year that her personal iPhone could be under state-sponsored attack. An investigation by HRW’s security team, which was reviewed by Amnesty International’s Security Lab, found that Fakih’s iPhones had apparently been infected with Pegasus through a so-called “zero-click” exploit that allows operators of the spyware to infect a phone without the mobile user doing anything, such as clicking on a link.
The news comes as NSO has faced a raft of bad news at home and abroad.
In November, the company was placed on a US blacklist by US President Joe Biden’s administration, which said it had evidence that the Israeli company was enabling foreign governments to conduct “transnational repression.”
NSO has also been engulfed in a domestic crisis in Israel after it was alleged in a report by Calcalist that the Israeli police had used Pegasus to gather intelligence for investigative purposes without legal oversight. The report prompted Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to announce a probe into police use of the spyware against Israelis.
NSO said in a statement that it had no control over how its clients used the spyware.
On Tuesday, NSO chairman Asher Levy said he was stepping down as chairman, but denied that the move had any connection to the recent developments.
Levy said he had been appointed to the role by NSO’s previous private equity owners, but that management of the fund that owns the company had been transferred to a new company.
“Any attempts to present this move as a present-day resignation as a result of any publication related to NSO are completely false,” Levy said. “I am full of appreciation to NSO, the life-saving technology it develops, the company’s management and employees, and the unprecedented ethical policies that the company has adopted.”
In a statement on Tuesday, NSO said it was a “profitable company” and that it believed an international regulatory structure ought to be put in place to ensure the responsible use of cyberintelligence tools.
“However, any call to suspend these life-saving technologies until such a structure exists is naive, and would only benefit the terrorists, pedophiles and hardened criminals, who will evade surveillance and apprehension,” the spokesperson said.
NSO declined to respond to the Guardian’s questions about Fakih’s case, but it told HRW that it was “not aware of any active customer using [its] technology against a Human Rights Watch staff member” and that it would open an initial assessment into allegations that Fakih had been hacked.
When it is successfully deployed, a user of Pegasus spyware can intercept phone calls, see a target’s photographs, read their messages and turn the phone into a remote listening device.
NSO has said that its clients are only meant to use the spyware to target serious suspected criminals.
HRW alleged that its analysis found that Fakih’s two devices had been hacked between April 6 and Aug. 23 last year. The human rights group could not identify the client who might have been responsible for the alleged hacking, but said Fakih oversees crisis response from countries including Israel/Palestine, Kazakhstan, Ethiopia, Syria, Myanmar, Lebanon, Afghanistan and the US.
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