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Israel to examine whether spyware export rules should be tightened

·8 min read
<span>Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Amir Cohen/Reuters

An Israeli commission reviewing allegations that NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware was misused by its customers to target journalists and human rights activists will examine whether rules on Israel’s export of cyberweapons such as Pegasus should be tightened, a senior MP has said.

The move came as the French president, Emmanuel Macron, convened an emergency cybersecurity meeting after reports his mobile phone and those of government ministers appeared in the leaked list. An official in Macron’s Elysee Palace said that the president’s phone and phone numbers had been changed.

NSO has said Macron was not a “target” of any of its customers, meaning the company denies he was selected for surveillance using its spyware, saying in multiple statements that it requires its government clients to use its powerful spying tools only for legitimate investigations into terrorism or crime.

What is in the data leak?

The data leak is a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that, since 2016, are believed to have been selected as those of people of interest by government clients of NSO Group, which sells surveillance software. The data also contains the time and date that numbers were selected, or entered on to a system. Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit journalism organisation, and Amnesty International initially had access to the list and shared access with 16 media organisations including the Guardian. More than 80 journalists have worked together over several months as part of the Pegasus project. Amnesty’s Security Lab, a technical partner on the project, did the forensic analyses.

What does the leak indicate?

The consortium believes the data indicates the potential targets NSO’s government clients identified in advance of possible surveillance. While the data is an indication of intent, the presence of a number in the data does not reveal whether there was an attempt to infect the phone with spyware such as Pegasus, the company’s signature surveillance tool, or whether any attempt succeeded. The presence in the data of a very small number of landlines and US numbers, which NSO says are “technically impossible” to access with its tools, reveals some targets were selected by NSO clients even though they could not be infected with Pegasus. However, forensic examinations of a small sample of mobile phones with numbers on the list found tight correlations between the time and date of a number in the data and the start of Pegasus activity – in some cases as little as a few seconds.

What did forensic analysis reveal?

Amnesty examined 67 smartphones where attacks were suspected. Of those, 23 were successfully infected and 14 showed signs of attempted penetration. For the remaining 30, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the handsets had been replaced. Fifteen of the phones were Android devices, none of which showed evidence of successful infection. However, unlike iPhones, phones that use Android do not log the kinds of information required for Amnesty’s detective work. Three Android phones showed signs of targeting, such as Pegasus-linked SMS messages.

Amnesty shared “backup copies” of four iPhones with Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto that specialises in studying Pegasus, which confirmed that they showed signs of Pegasus infection. Citizen Lab also conducted a peer review of Amnesty’s forensic methods, and found them to be sound.

Which NSO clients were selecting numbers?

While the data is organised into clusters, indicative of individual NSO clients, it does not say which NSO client was responsible for selecting any given number. NSO claims to sell its tools to 60 clients in 40 countries, but refuses to identify them. By closely examining the pattern of targeting by individual clients in the leaked data, media partners were able to identify 10 governments believed to be responsible for selecting the targets: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates. Citizen Lab has also found evidence of all 10 being clients of NSO.

What does NSO Group say?

You can read NSO Group’s full statement here. The company has always said it does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets. Through its lawyers, NSO said the consortium had made “incorrect assumptions” about which clients use the company’s technology. It said the 50,000 number was “exaggerated” and that the list could not be a list of numbers “targeted by governments using Pegasus”. The lawyers said NSO had reason to believe the list accessed by the consortium “is not a list of numbers targeted by governments using Pegasus, but instead, may be part of a larger list of numbers that might have been used by NSO Group customers for other purposes”. They said it was a list of numbers that anyone could search on an open source system. After further questions, the lawyers said the consortium was basing its findings “on misleading interpretation of leaked data from accessible and overt basic information, such as HLR Lookup services, which have no bearing on the list of the customers' targets of Pegasus or any other NSO products ... we still do not see any correlation of these lists to anything related to use of NSO Group technologies”. Following publication, they explained that they considered a "target" to be a phone that was the subject of a successful or attempted (but failed) infection by Pegasus, and reiterated that the list of 50,000 phones was too large for it to represent "targets" of Pegasus. They said that the fact that a number appeared on the list was in no way indicative of whether it had been selected for surveillance using Pegasus.

What is HLR lookup data?

The term HLR, or home location register, refers to a database that is essential to operating mobile phone networks. Such registers keep records on the networks of phone users and their general locations, along with other identifying information that is used routinely in routing calls and texts. Telecoms and surveillance experts say HLR data can sometimes be used in the early phase of a surveillance attempt, when identifying whether it is possible to connect to a phone. The consortium understands NSO clients have the capability through an interface on the Pegasus system to conduct HLR lookup inquiries. It is unclear whether Pegasus operators are required to conduct HRL lookup inquiries via its interface to use its software; an NSO source stressed its clients may have different reasons – unrelated to Pegasus – for conducting HLR lookups via an NSO system.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, added her voice to the escalating controversy on Thursday, telling reporters in Berlin that spyware such as NSO’s should be denied to countries where there was no judicial oversight, after it emerged 14 heads of state were on the list.

Asked whether she regretted that technology sold by NSO Group had helped to undermine freedom of expression in countries governed by autocratic regimes, Merkel said: “I believe it is important that software developed for certain situations does not fall into the wrong hands. There have to be restrictive conditions and such software should not be sold to countries where judicial oversight over such attacks cannot be guaranteed.”

The growing fallout from the revelations of the Pegasus project, a collaboration of 17 media organisations including the Guardian, which launched on Sunday with a series of claims about misuse of the software, has continued to resonate.

Related: Israel ‘creating task force’ to manage response to Pegasus project

In Israel the prospect of tighter controls on the export of spyware such as Pegasus was raised by Ram Ben-Barak, the head of parliament’s foreign affairs and defence committee – and a former deputy head of the Mossad spy agency – on Army Radio as he disclosed that Israel’s “defence establishment [has] appointed a review commission made up of a number of groups”.

“We certainly have to look anew at this whole subject of licenses granted by DECA [Israel’s Defence Exports Control Agency],” he said. “When they finish their review, we’ll demand to see the results and assess whether we need to make corrections.”

DECA is within Israel’s defence ministry and oversees NSO exports. The ministry and the company have said Pegasus is meant to be used to track terrorists and criminals only, and that all foreign clients are vetted governments.

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At the heart of the project is a leaked database of about 50,000 mobile phone numbers. The Guardian and other media partners that had access to the data believe the list indicates persons of interest selected by government clients of NSO. It includes some people whose phones showed traces of NSO’s Pegasus spyware, according to forensic analysis of their devices.

The appearance of a number on the leaked list, however, does not mean it was subject to an attempted or successful hack.

NSO says the database has “no relevance” to the company, and has rejected the reporting by the Pegasus project as “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”. It denied that the leaked database represented those targeted for surveillance by the Pegasus software.

The alleged misuse has stirred questions within Naftali Bennett’s cross-partisan coalition, one of whose members, the liberal party Meretz, questioned the defence minister, Benny Gantz, about NSO exports in a meeting on Thursday.

Gantz “emphasised the importance of upholding human rights within the framework of weapons sales”, a joint statement said.

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