An Amnesty International employee has been targeted with Israeli-made surveillance software, the human rights group said, Wednesday, adding to a growing number of examples of Israeli technology being used to spy on human rights workers and opposition figures, in the Middle East and beyond.
In a 20-page report, Amnesty outlined how it thinks a hacker tried to break into an unidentified staff memberâ€™s smartphone in early June by baiting the employee with a WhatsApp message about a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
The London-based human rights organization said, according to the PNN, that it traced the malicious link in the message to a network of sites tied to the NSO Group, an Israeli surveillance company implicated in a series of digital break-in attempts, including a campaign to compromise proponents of a soda tax in Mexico and an effort to hack into the phone of an Arab dissident that prompted an update to Appleâ€™s operating system.
Joshua Franco, Amnestyâ€™s head of technology and human rights, said the latest hacking attempt was emblematic of the increased digital risk faced by activists worldwide.
NSO said in a written statement that its product was â€śintended to be used exclusively for the investigation and prevention of crime and terrorismâ€ť and that allegations of wrongdoing would be investigated. In response to a series of written questions, the company said past allegations of customer misuse had, in an undisclosed number of cases, led to the termination of contracts.Amnestyâ€™s findings were corroborated by internet watchdog Citizen Lab, which has been tracking NSO spyware for two years and is based at the University of Torontoâ€™s Munk School of Global Affairs.
In its own report being released Wednesday, Citizen Lab said it so far had counted some 175 targets of NSO spyware worldwide, including 150 people in Panama identified as part of a massive domestic espionage scandal swirling around the countryâ€™s former president.
The Amnesty International report said the organization identified a second human rights activist, in Saudi Arabia, who was targeted in a similar way to its staffer. Citizen Lab said it found traces of similar hacking attempts tied to Qatar or Saudi, hinting at the use of the Israeli spyware elsewhere in the Gulf.
Any possible use of Israeli technology to police dissent in the Arab world could raise uncomfortable questions both for Israel, which still sees itself as a bastion of democracy in the region, and for countries with no formal diplomatic ties to the Jewish state.
For Amnestyâ€™s Franco, it was a sign of an out-of-control trade in high-tech surveillance tools.
â€śThis is a huge market thatâ€™s completely opaque and under-regulated,â€ť he said.