US voices concern with Israeli officials about Pegasus revelations


The White House has raised concerns with top Israeli officials about allegations that spyware sold by Israeli surveillance company NSO Group has been used by governments around the world to monitor journalists and activists and – potentially – government officials with close ties to the US.

Brett McGurk, a top Biden administration adviser on the Middle East, raised questions privately about NSO in a meeting last week with Zohar Palti, a senior Israeli defence ministry official, according to reports by Axios and the Washington Post.

Palti reportedly told McGurk that the controversy was being taken very seriously and that Israel was examining whether it needed to change rules around how offensive cyber-weapons were sold to other countries.

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What is in the data leak?

The data leak is a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that, since 2016, are believed to have been selected as those of people of interest by government clients of NSO Group, which sells surveillance software. The data also contains the time and date that numbers were selected, or entered on to a system. Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based nonprofit journalism organisation, and Amnesty International initially had access to the list and shared access with 16 media organisations including the Guardian. More than 80 journalists have worked together over several months as part of the Pegasus project. Amnesty’s Security Lab, a technical partner on the project, did the forensic analyses.

What does the leak indicate?

The consortium believes the data indicates the potential targets NSO’s government clients identified in advance of possible surveillance. While the data is an indication of intent, the presence of a number in the data does not reveal whether there was an attempt to infect the phone with spyware such as Pegasus, the company’s signature surveillance tool, or whether any attempt succeeded. The presence in the data of a very small number of landlines and US numbers, which NSO says are “technically impossible” to access with its tools, reveals some targets were selected by NSO clients even though they could not be infected with Pegasus. However, forensic examinations of a small sample of mobile phones with numbers on the list found tight correlations between the time and date of a number in the data and the start of Pegasus activity – in some cases as little as a few seconds.

What did forensic analysis reveal?

Amnesty examined 67 smartphones where attacks were suspected. Of those, 23 were successfully infected and 14 showed signs of attempted penetration. For the remaining 30, the tests were inconclusive, in several cases because the handsets had been replaced. Fifteen of the phones were Android devices, none of which showed evidence of successful infection. However, unlike iPhones, phones that use Android do not log the kinds of information required for Amnesty’s detective work. Three Android phones showed signs of targeting, such as Pegasus-linked SMS messages.

Amnesty shared “backup copies” of four iPhones with Citizen Lab, a research group at the University of Toronto that specialises in studying Pegasus, which confirmed that they showed signs of Pegasus infection. Citizen Lab also conducted a peer review of Amnesty’s forensic methods, and found them to be sound.

Which NSO clients were selecting numbers?

While the data is organised into clusters, indicative of individual NSO clients, it does not say which NSO client was responsible for selecting any given number. NSO claims to sell its tools to 60 clients in 40 countries, but refuses to identify them. By closely examining the pattern of targeting by individual clients in the leaked data, media partners were able to identify 10 governments believed to be responsible for selecting the targets: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India, and the United Arab Emirates. Citizen Lab has also found evidence of all 10 being clients of NSO.

What does NSO Group say?

You can read NSO Group’s full statement here. The company has always said it does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets. Through its lawyers, NSO said the consortium had made “incorrect assumptions” about which clients use the company’s technology. It said the 50,000 number was “exaggerated” and that the list could not be a list of numbers “targeted by governments using Pegasus”. The lawyers said NSO had reason to believe the list accessed by the consortium “is not a list of numbers targeted by governments using Pegasus, but instead, may be part of a larger list of numbers that might have been used by NSO Group customers for other purposes”. They said it was a list of numbers that anyone could search on an open source system. After further questions, the lawyers said the consortium was basing its findings “on misleading interpretation of leaked data from accessible and overt basic information, such as HLR Lookup services, which have no bearing on the list of the customers' targets of Pegasus or any other NSO products ... we still do not see any correlation of these lists to anything related to use of NSO Group technologies”. Following publication, they explained that they considered a "target" to be a phone that was the subject of a successful or attempted (but failed) infection by Pegasus, and reiterated that the list of 50,000 phones was too large for it to represent "targets" of Pegasus. They said that the fact that a number appeared on the list was in no way indicative of whether it had been selected for surveillance using Pegasus. 

What is HLR lookup data?

The term HLR, or home location register, refers to a database that is essential to operating mobile phone networks. Such registers keep records on the networks of phone users and their general locations, along with other identifying information that is used routinely in routing calls and texts. Telecoms and surveillance experts say HLR data can sometimes be used in the early phase of a surveillance attempt, when identifying whether it is possible to connect to a phone. The consortium understands NSO clients have the capability through an interface on the Pegasus system to conduct HLR lookup inquiries. It is unclear whether Pegasus operators are required to conduct HRL lookup inquiries via its interface to use its software; an NSO source stressed its clients may have different reasons – unrelated to Pegasus – for conducting HLR lookups via an NSO system.

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Under the current rules, Israel’s ministry of defence reviews requests for export licences before NSO’s surveillance technology is sold to a foreign country. NSO has said the reviews are rigorous and take into account a country’s human rights record.

The development comes two weeks after the Pegasus project, a journalistic consortium that includes the Guardian and 16 other media partners, revealed details of a massive leak of phone numbers of individuals who are believed to have been selected as candidates for possible surveillance by NSO’s government clients, including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Hungary.

The phone numbers of the French president, Emmanuel Macron, and Joe Biden’s Iran envoy, Robert Malley, were among tens of thousands of numbers of individuals who were apparently considered people of interest by NSO clients.

Forensic analysis of dozens of phones by Amnesty International’s Security lab, a technical partner of the Pegasus project, found that many of the phones analysed and included on the leaked list had either been infected by NSO’s spyware, called Pegasus, or that there had been attempted infections.

When NSO’s Pegasus spyware infects a phone, government clients who use it can gain access to an individual’s phone conversations, messages, photos and location, as well as turn the phone into a portable listening device by manipulating its recorder.

The leak contains a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that are believed to have been identified as those of people of interest by NSO clients since 2016.

The appearance of a number on the leaked list does not mean it was subject to an attempted or successful hack. NSO said Macron was not a “target” of any of its customers, meaning the company denies there was any attempted or successful Pegasus infection of his phone. It says it is technically impossible for its foreign government clients to target US phone numbers with Pegasus.

NSO has also said the data has “no relevance” to the company, and has rejected the reporting by the Pegasus project as “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories”. It denied that the leaked data represented those targeted for surveillance by the Pegasus software. NSO has called the 50,000 number exaggerated and said it was too large to represent individuals targeted by Pegasus.

The Washington Post, a partner in the Pegasus project, reported on Thursday that an Israeli official had confirmed contact in recent days between US and Israeli officials about the consortium’s findings, and that Israeli officials had told US counterparts that the matter was being taken seriously.

Israel has reportedly also launched its own investigation into the matter.

Israeli authorities inspected NSO’s offices near Tel Aviv on Wednesday, at the same time as the defence minister, Benny Gantz, arrived for a pre-arranged visit to Paris in which the Pegasus revelations were discussed with his French counterpart.

Early media reports described the moves on NSO’s offices as a raid, but the company said in a statement that the authorities had “visited” rather than raided its premises.

NSO said it had been informed in advance that defence ministry officials responsible for overseeing commercial exports of sensitive cyber-exports would be doing an inspection.

“The company is working in full transparency with the Israeli authorities,” it said.