The Amnesty International organization claimed on Tuesday that one of its employees had been targeted with Israeli-made surveillance software, The Associated Press reported.
The claim was made in a 20-page report in which Amnesty outlined how it thinks a hacker tried to break into an unidentified staff member’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 organization said 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 Apple’s operating system.
Joshua Franco, Amnesty’s head of technology and human rights, said the latest hacking attempt was emblematic of the increased digital risk faced by activists worldwide.
“This is the new normal for human rights defenders,” Franco said, according to AP.
NSO said in a written statement that its product was “intended to be used exclusively for the investigation and prevention of crime and terrorism” and that allegations of wrongdoing would be investigated. The company added that past allegations of customer misuse had, in an undisclosed number of cases, led to the termination of contracts.
Amnesty’s findings were reportedly corroborated by internet watchdog Citizen Lab, which has been tracking NSO spyware for two years and is based at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.
The Amnesty 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.