Security

Pegasus Spyware Targeted iPhones of Journalists and Activists in Jordan

Feb 05, 2024NewsroomSpyware / Surveillance

The iPhones belonging to nearly three dozen journalists, activists, human rights lawyers, and civil society members in Jordan have been targeted with NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, according to joint findings from Access Now and the Citizen Lab.

Nine of the 35 individuals have been publicly confirmed as targeted, out of whom six had their devices compromised with the mercenary surveillanceware tool. The infections are estimated to have taken place from at least 2019 until September 2023.

“In some cases, perpetrators posed as journalists, seeking an interview or a quote from victims, while embedding malicious links to Pegasus spyware amid and in between their messages,” Access Now said.

“A number of victims were reinfected with Pegasus spyware multiple times — demonstrating the relentless nature of this targeted surveillance campaign.”

The Israeli company has been under the radar for failing to implement rigorous human rights safeguards prior to selling its cyber intelligence technology to government clients and law enforcement agencies for “preventing and investigating terrorism and serious crimes.”

NSO Group, in its 2023 Transparency and Responsibility Report, touted a “significant decrease” in reports of product misuse during 2022 and 2023, attributing the downturn to its due diligence and review process.

“Cyber intelligence technology enables government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to carry out their basic duties to prevent violence and safeguard the public,” the company noted.

“Importantly, it allows them to counter the widespread deployment of end-to-end encryption applications by terrorists and criminals without engaging in mass surveillance or obtaining backdoor access to the devices of all users.”

It further sought to “dispel falsehoods” about Pegasus, stating it is not a mass surveillance tool, that it’s licensed to legitimate, vetted intelligence and law enforcement agencies, and that it cannot take control of a device or penetrate computer networks, desktop or laptop operating systems.

“It is technologically impossible for Pegasus to add, alter, delete, or otherwise manipulate data on targeted mobile devices, or perform any other activities beyond viewing and/or extracting certain data,” NSO Group said.

Despite these assurances, the invasive spyware attacks targeting Jordan civil society members underscores the continued pattern of abuse that run counter to the company’s claims.

Access Now said the victims’ devices were infiltrated with both zero-click and one-click attacks using Apple iOS exploits like FORCEDENTRY, FINDMYPWN, PWNYOURHOME, and BLASTPASS to breach security guardrails and deliver Pegasus via social engineering attacks.

The attacks were characterized by the propagation of malicious links to victims via WhatsApp and SMS, with the attackers posing as journalists to increase the likelihood of success of the campaign.

The non-profit further said that enabling Lockdown Mode on the iPhones likely prevented some of the devices from being re-infected again with the spyware. It also called on world governments, including Jordan’s, to halt the use of such tools and enforce a moratorium on their sale until adequate countermeasures are adopted.

“Surveillance technologies and cyberweapons such as NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware are used to target human rights defenders and journalists, to intimidate and dissuade them from their work, to infiltrate their networks, and to gather information for use against other targets,” Access Now said.

“The targeted surveillance of individuals violates their right to privacy, freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. It also creates a chilling effect, forcing individuals to self-censor and cease their activism or journalistic work, for fear of reprisal.”

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