Massive spying on dissidents, activists and journalists revealed

Spyware developed by an Israeli surveillance company was sold to authoritarian governments

Human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers across the globe have been targeted by authoritarian governments using hacking software, known as Pegasus project, sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group, according to an investigation into a massive data leak, news outlets reported.

The analysis of the leaked data identified at least 10 governments believed to be NSO customers - Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the UAE. While Rwanda, Morocco, India, and Hungary denied having used Pegasus to hack the phones of the individuals named in the list, while Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico, and the UAE did not respond to invitations to comment, according to the Guardian.

The "Pegasus" probe is based on a list of more than 50,000 mobile phone numbers believed to be targeted by the malware and leaked to the Paris-based nonprofit Forbidden stories and human rights group Amnesty International. The military-grade malware infects phones, allowing the operator to access messages, photos, emails, and location data as well as surreptitiously control the device's microphones and cameras. 

The investigation suggests widespread and continuing abuse of Pegasus spyware, which the company insists is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists. The hacking could be traced back by 2016,

The investigation suggests the Hungarian government of Viktor Orban appears to have deployed NSO's technology as part of his so-called war on the media, targeting investigative journalists in the country as well as the close circle of one of Hungary's few independent media executives.

The leaked data and forensic analyses also suggest NSO's spy tool was used by Saudi Arabia and its close ally, the UAE, to target the phones of close associates of the murdered Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the months after his death. The Turkish prosecutor investigating his death was also a candidate for targeting, the data leak suggests.

Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media nonprofit organisation, and Amnesty International initially had access to the leaked list and shared access with media partners as part of the Pegasus project, a reporting consortium. Forensics analysis of a small number of phones whose numbers appeared on the leaked list also showed more than half had traces of the Pegasus spyware.

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