NSO Group, the creepy spyware firm known for selling its services to authoritarian governments throughout the world, is in trouble again. A new report shows that the company’s most notorious malware, Pegasus, was used to hack the iPhone of a Jordanian journalist in December. The hack occurred several weeks after Apple filed a high-profile suit against the Israeli company in a bid to stop such attacks from occurring.
Researchers examined the phones of over 60 Jordanian activists and lawyers, finding evidence of Pegasus infections in a handful of them. Among the infected was award-winning Jordanian journalist Suhair Jaradat, whose phone was hit with Pegasus in December. The report, which doesn’t speculate as to who was behind the breach, says that Jaradat’s phone was compromised via a malicious WhatsApp message from a person pretending to be an anti-government critic. The hack on Jaradat’s device occurred on December 5, several weeks after Apple sued the mercenary spyware vendor in an effort to get it to curtail Pegasus customers’ attacks on iPhone users. Others among the surveyed group were hacked prior to Apple’s lawsuit.
That news was revealed in a report published Tuesday by Front Line Defenders, a human rights organization, and Citizen Lab, a digital research unit with the University of Toronto.
“In this report, we find once again that a government client of NSO Group has used Pegasus to spy on civil society targets that are neither terrorists nor criminals,” the report says. “The fact that the targeting we uncovered happened after the widespread publicity around Apple’s lawsuit and notifications to victims is especially remarkable; a firm that truly respected such concerns would have at least paused operations for government clients, like Jordan, that have a widely publicised track record of human rights concerns and had enacted emergency powers giving authorities widespread latitude to infringe on civil liberties.”
Apple sued NSO last November, filing for an injunction and accusing the company of “flagrant violations of US federal and state law.” Apple sought to ban NSO from using any Apple products and services. The lawsuit followed a long, tempestuous history of conflict between the two companies. Apple, which has prided itself on its reputation for privacy and security, was forced last summer to issue an emergency patch designed to defend iPhone users against FORCEDENTRY, an NSO exploit. Not long afterwards, the company issued an unprecedented alert to a small number of users who had been actively targeted by the company’s noxious products.
TechCrunch reports that, so far, Apple’s lawsuit hasn’t made much progress, as the assigned judge in the case recently recused herself and a decision in the suit is not expected until later this summer. NSO is also currently facing a lawsuit from Meta over Pegasus buyers’ repeated hacking of WhatsApp users. On Tuesday, Al Jazeera reported that yet another lawsuit had been filed against the company, this time by a Palestinian lawyer who claims his phone was “illegally infiltrated” by the company’s spyware.
The product behind all of this trouble, Pegasus, is one of the most well-known and powerful commercial surveillance tools of its kind. It has the ability to provide a full account of a mobile device’s contents and activities, and it can steal pictures, photos, and text messages while also hijacking a phone’s mic and camera.
NSO claims that its malware is only used in the service of traditional law enforcement investigations to catch “terrorists” and “pedophiles,” though substantial evidence exists to the contrary. Past investigations have shown that Pegasus has frequently been used by repressive governments to target activists, journalists, human rights lawyers, politicians and diplomats all over the world.