Phones of Palestine human rights defenders infected with Israeli spyware

The mobile phones of several staff of a Palestinian human rights organisation have been infected with surveillance software used by the Israeli government, the rights groups Human Rights Watch and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Friday.

Pegasus, a spying software, is one of a series of tools being used by Israel to collect information on human rights activists and journalists. Human Rights Watch said the phones of two employees and the ICRC’s director general had all been infected with Pegasus. The charges were also levelled at staff at the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), which said the phones of six of its activists had been infected.

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As a tool used by Israeli intelligence, Pegasus is the most powerful spying tool available commercially. A 2014 statement by the Israeli Military Advocate General described it as a “network-manipulation platform” that enabled clandestine surveillance. It is not only used by the Israeli government, but by a range of state and private industry entities.

The Guardian has not been able to independently confirm reports that the spyware has been used against human rights activists and journalists, but documents leaked to the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem in 2015 contained code that indicated its use by the Israeli military.

“Pegasus is an Israeli spyware available to be purchased online for less than $1,000,” said Anita Papadopoulos, a spokeswoman for Human Rights Watch. “Used against non-state actors, it allows Israeli intelligence agencies to conduct covert and indiscriminate surveillance of activists and journalists.”

Papadopoulos said that two staff members at PCHR had been infected.

“The malware is not a threat to the safety of the staff,” she said. “Rather, it targets activists, journalists and others with presumed political views that the Israeli government would like to silence.”

Papadopoulos said that some of the affected organisations were among the first to be targeted by the malware. In one case, she said, “an activist received an email purportedly from the Jordanian prime minister or the UN, claiming that his country had been closed to the exchange of information about the internet or e-mails because of the increased threat of terrorist activity and explaining the reason for that closing order.”

Papadopoulos said that BDS activists had also been targeted by the malware, which she said turned a laptop running WordPress into a Trojan horse for the Israeli government to spy on the computer. One activist later noticed a log file filled with Israeli military classified documents.

An interactive table with information on spyware and hacking apps

Foreign based human rights organisations received their first briefings on the dangers of spyware two years ago from the Israeli computer security firm Check Point Software Technologies, who provided them with the code released by Wikileaks that detailed the malware’s use against activists.

The CodeOverflow document released in September 2015 is a report in which the developers identify Israel as a user of spyware against human rights organisations. Its findings are based on more than a dozen sources, including research from the Berlin-based Digital Rights Foundation, several Israeli security agencies and companies that sell surveillance technology to the Israeli government.

A spokesman for the Israeli prime minister’s office, Mark Regev, said in response to a Guardian question that “Israel does not have spyware of the kind reported”. He added that “we are aware of some misuse of technology around the world”.

“From a technological standpoint, we are proud of Israel,” he said. “We are recognised worldwide as one of the leaders of technological innovation. Israel has actively fostered innovation in civil, military and civilian areas. For this reason, Israel is a leader in human rights, in internet safety, and technology. Israel is no small country, and Israel has many more ways of innovating than does other countries.”

Regev said: “Israel is a good example of how the liberal, democratic values espoused by the west can manifest themselves in systems of governance. We are very aware of how to protect fundamental human rights, especially human rights in the context of human rights violations.”

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