Research conducted by digital-rights researchers concluded that four Jordanians' mobile phones got hacked for over two years with Pegasus, a software developed by NSO, an Israeli spyware company.
On Tuesday, April 5, 2022, Frontline Defenders and Citizens Lab released findings from their investigations. They revealed that the Jordanian government seemingly perpetrated the hackings. However, Jordan denied the allegations.
Meanwhile, NSO finds itself in the news again after its controversial software Pegasus was once more linked to being used as a tool for authoritarian governments to abuse citizens' rights.
The spyware company did not react to the investigation. However, it said that monitoring of political activists by its clients using Pegasus amounted to "severe misuse" of the software. Though NSO's response shows it doesn't support the misuse of its software, one must note that the company and the Israeli government have repeatedly been criticized for their oversight practices.
Find out more about the digital-rights researchers' findings and so much more in this article. Read on!
Who are the hacked Jordanians?
According to the findings, the activists reportedly hacked are Ahmed al-Neimat, Malik Abu Orabi, Suhair Jaradat, and another female human rights activist who wanted to remain anonymous.
Ahmed is an anti-corruption activist banned from working in or leaving Jordan. Malik is a human rights lawyer, while Suhair is a female journalist and human rights activist.
The report revealed that operators primarily focused on Jordan appeared to hack at least two of the activists. Findings identified the two operators as being likely Jordanian government agencies.
Incredibly, Ahmed and co. are not the only Jordanian activists targeted by their government. Earlier in 2022, Frontline Defenders revealed that Hala Ahed Deeb, another female activist, was hacked using the NSO software.
What is Frontline Defenders?
Frontline Defenders is an Ireland-based nonprofit advocacy group that assists endangered human rights activists.
What is Citizens Lab?
Citizens Lab is based at the University of Toronto. It researches information, security, and human rights.
Frontline Defenders and Citizens Lab's joint report
In the Frontline Defenders and Citizens Lab's joint report, they said the hacks on the Jordanians occurred between August 2019 and December 2021. They revealed that the last hack happened on an iPhone. If the allegation is accurate, then it means NSO did not back down from targeting Apple's operating system despite a lawsuit by the tech giant over past hacks.
Frontline Defenders' executive director, Andrew Anderson, shed more light on the research in a statement. He said it shows that local authorities continuously target human rights activists carrying out legitimate and peaceful work in the Middle East.
Jordan and NSO's reaction to the research
Despite the findings, Jordan and NSO have denied any wrongdoing. Jordan's National Center for Cyber Security "categorically denied" the reports' findings. It said the allegations are baseless, adding that the country hasn't cooperated with any agent to spy on citizens' phones or censor their calls.
Pegasus is a software that allows its operators to invade a target's mobile device stealthily. Following this invasion, the operator accesses the target's messages, contacts, and movement history.
However, NSO stated that it sells Pegasus to only foreign governments following approval by Isreal's Defense Ministry as a tool for capturing criminals and terrorists.
The company said it has protective measures to prevent abuse of the software. However, it acknowledged that it could not control who its clients monitor. Also, it does not have access to the information collected. In its statement, NSO said, per ABC News:
"While we have not seen the report mentioned in your inquiry, and without confirming or denying specific customers, NSO’s firm stance on these issues is that the use of cyber tools in order to monitor dissidents, activists and journalists is a severe misuse of any technology and goes against the desired use of such critical tools."
Although NSO agrees using its software to monitor journalists and activists' activities is a severe misuse, the company does not identify its clients and refuses to say if Jordan is among them.
However, NSO revealed it had disconnected seven clients for abusing its Pegasus software. The disconnected clients reportedly include authorities in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Mexico.
NSO's measures are not enough
Despite NSO's claims that it has cut off seven clients for abusing its technology, human rights groups and outside researchers believe the company's protective measures are insufficient.
These groups and researchers say NSO's clients continually abuse Pegasus, using it to track journalists, human rights activists, and political dissidents. As a result, the United States of America blacklisted NSO because it believed its tools were used to conduct transnational repression.
Critics also accused the Israeli government of lax oversight over the country's digital surveillance industry. However, Israel said last year that it was tightening its supervision of cyber exports.
However, Frontline Defenders and Citizens Lab's findings said the recent case against NSO as well the previous ones indict the NSO group because it showed an inability or unwillingness to put even the most basic human rights-respecting safeguards in place in its software.
Jordan's unfriendly stance against public dissent
Several countries are known to restrict their citizens' access to the internet or stifle dissenting voices. While many citizens of such countries have found ways to bypass such restrictions, such governments find other means to suppress the opposition.
Jordan is often seen as a “voice of moderation.” This reputation has made the monarchy a strategic Western ally. However, King Abdullah II is not a fan of loud public dissent and has limited the amount he is willing to tolerate. This is amid multiple corruption and human rights abuses against his government.
Last year, King Abdullah II accused his half-brother and former Crown Prince Hamzah of being involved in a "malicious plot." Afterward, he placed him under house arrest. However, Hamzah released a video where he denied all allegations against him before saying King Abdullah was punishing him for speaking out against official corruption.
Since then, Hamzah has only been spotted once in public and has subsequently relinquished his royal title in protest over how Jordan is run. Hamzah explained that he decided to let go of his title because he couldn't reconcile his convictions with Jordan's institutions' current approaches, policies, and methods. Neither King Abdullah nor the Royal Court commented on the development.
We wait to see what steps would follow after NSO's indictment by Frontline Defenders and Citizens Lab in their recent findings. But, whatever happens, it is becoming apparent that NSO needs to do more to prevent the abuse of its software if, indeed, it is unaware of such illegal and intrusive practices.