Amnesty International revealed that one of its employees was targeted with a surveillance malware developed by an Israeli firm.
The human rights group published a report that provides details on the attack against its employee. The hacker attempted to compromise the mobile device of a staff member in early June by sending him a WhatsApp message about a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
This SMS message translates to:
“Court order #XXXXXX issued against identity owner **** on XX/XX/XXX”
The organization added that such kind of attacks is becoming even more frequent, a growing number of Israeli surveillance software being used to spy on human rights operators and opposition figures in the Middle East and beyond.
Amnesty International traced the malicious link in the message to the surveillance network of the Israeli firm NSO Group.
“In June 2018, an Amnesty International staff member received a malicious WhatsApp message with Saudi Arabia-related bait content and carrying links Amnesty International believes are used to distribute and deploy sophisticated mobile spyware. Through the course of our subsequent investigation we discovered that a Saudi activist based abroad had also received similar malicious messages.” reads the report published Amnesty International.
“In its analysis of these messages, Amnesty International found connections with a network of over 600 domain names. Not only are these domain names suspicious, but they also overlap with infrastructure that had previously been identified as part of Pegasus, a sophisticated commercial exploitation and spyware platform sold by the Israel surveillance vendor, NSO Group.”
The servers identified by the experts were matching NSO Group’s description of Pegasus in the Hacking Team leaked document, they found two other connections to NSO Group:
“With the technique we developed, we were then able to identify over 600 servers that demonstrated similar behavior. Among these we found servers that hosted domain names that have been previously identified as connected to NSO Group by Citizen Lab and others, specifically banca-movil[.]com, pine-sales[.]com, and ecommerce-ads[.]org.” continues the report.
There are several companies that develop surveillance platforms for targeting mobile devices, the NSO Group operated in the dark for several years, until the researchers from the Citizenlab organization and the Lookout firm spotted its software in targeted attacks against UAE human rights defender, Ahmed Mansoor.
The researchers also spotted other attacks against a Mexican journalist who reported to the public a story of the corruption in the Mexican government.
NSO replied that its surveillance solution was “intended to be used exclusively for the investigation and prevention of crime and terrorism.”
People familiar with the NSO Group confirmed that the company has an internal ethics committee that monitors the sales and potential customers verifying that the software will not be abused to violate human rights.
Officially the sale of surveillance software is limited to authorized governments to support investigation of agencies on criminal organizations and terrorist groups.
Unfortunately, its software is known to have been abused to spy on journalists and human rights activists.
The traces collected by Amnesty International was corroborated by the findings of the investigation conducted by researchers at the internet watchdog Citizen Lab.
“Amnesty International shared the suspicious messages with us and asked us to verify their findings, as we have been tracking infrastructure that appears to be related to NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware since March 2016.” reads the analysis published by Citizen Lab.
“Based on our analysis of the messages sent to these individuals, we can corroborate Amnesty’s findings that the SMS messages contain domain names pointing to websites that appear to be part of NSO Group’s Pegasus infrastructure.”
Citizen Lab collected evidence of attacks against 175 targets worldwide carried on with the NSO spyware. Citizen Lab uncovered other attacks against individuals in Qatar or Saudi, where the Israeli surveillance software is becoming very popular.
|Country Nexus||Reported cases of individuals targeted||Year(s) in which spyware infection was attempted|
|Panama||Up to 150 (Source: Univision)1||2012-2014|
|UAE||1 (Source: Citizen Lab)||2016|
|Mexico||22 (Source: Citizen Lab)||2016|
|Saudi Arabia||2 (Source: Amnesty, Citizen Lab)||2018|
Amnesty International report confirmed that its experts identified a second human rights activist, in Saudi Arabia, who was targeted with the powerful spyware.
According to Joshua Franco, Amnesty’s head of technology and human rights, recent discovery demonstrates that trading of surveillance software is going out-of-control.
“This is a huge market that’s completely opaque and under-regulated,” he concluded.