Private Israeli spyware found on phones of 6 Palestinian human rights activists

Private Israeli spyware found on phones of 6 Palestinian human rights activists
© Associated Press/Sebastian Scheiner

Private Israeli intelligence firm NSO Group's spyware was found on the cell phones belonging to six Palestinian human rights activists, according to independent security researchers from Amnesty International and the University of Toronto, which released a technical report on the matter.

Some of the activists involved in the incident, which is the first known case of Palestinian activists being targeted by the Pegasus spyware, were affiliated with some groups controversially deemed terrorist organizations by Israeli Minister of Defense Benny Gantz according to The Associated Press.

Though researchers say the hacking began in July 2020, Mohammed al-Maskati of the nonprofit group Frontline Defenders detected the spyware on the first device last month. It was not clear who placed the spyware on the activists' devices, the AP noted.

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The spyware has come under fire in the past for also targeting journalists, political dissidents and rights activists. An infection by the spyware give intruders access to everything a person does and stores on their phone, including in real-time. 

Ireland-based Frontline Defenders and at least two of the victims who were hacked think Israel is the main suspect in the incident. They believe the controversial designation of the organizations as terrorist groups was in an effort to overshadow the news of the hack which came just days before but did not provide evidence for that claim, the wire service added.

Israel's Foreign Minister Yair Lapid on Saturday tried to distance the government from NSO group, which was blacklisted by the U.S. last week for allegedly providing phone hacking spyware to foreign governments for nefarious purposes.

While the company has faced previous allegations of selling hacking tools to authoritarian governments, they have said those sales were only to law enforcement and intelligence agencies.