New spyware can be used to spy on phone users, human rights groups say

(CNN) — The phones of several Palestinian nonprofit workers were infected with Pegasus, a new spyware that can be used for surveillance, human rights groups said Tuesday.

The organizations, including the International Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Human Rights Watch, first warned of the spyware on March 1.

The Pegasus spyware reportedly can intercept voice communications and the type of messages messages. It can also intercept user browsing history and apps used and the location of a phone.

The spyware has not been widely reported on before. On Tuesday, several U.S. and European intelligence officials told CNN they had not heard of it. They said the signal was not strong enough to get into the target’s phone and that the software can be used to eavesdrop on communications when a phone is offline.

Pegasus reportedly works by stealth and can be used through a phony firewall. Researchers said Pegasus is not active for long periods of time, limiting the potential danger.

But Dutch researchers discovered it in November 2015.

“By the time it was discovered, we were pretty well established and we started seeing a lot of high-level activists or organizations being targeted, and it was clear they were targeting information,” Heather Snyder, a spokeswoman for the research team known as Elbrus, told CNN in a Skype interview on Tuesday.

Pegasus appeared to be particularly useful for data mining, she said. One powerful tool is called PARALLEL, said Snyder. The tool analyzes the way humans communicate to compare them with images of people who live near a target.

Snyder declined to name specific organizations the researchers targeted, citing her organization’s classification as a non-governmental organization.

According to the reports from Human Rights Watch and the International Campaign for Palestinian Rights, an Ethiopian cell phone data tower provided an ideal launching point for the Pegasus attacks. The International Campaign for Palestinian Rights said 13 phones of workers there were infected, while the Human Rights Watch study only said three phones were infected, and that one of those phones had carried out work with anti-Israel political activists.

Both the International Campaign for Palestinian Rights and Human Rights Watch declined to name the victims. CNN was unable to independently verify the data. The groups said the victims had nothing to do with Palestine-Israel political activism.

A group of researchers launched a Freedom of Information Act request Tuesday to the government of Finland, where Elbrus is based, seeking the data. The group is also asking the Finnish National Intelligence Service for its information on Israel’s alleged use of Pegasus as well as on the allegations that the United States is experimenting with the same type of spyware.

Fred de Sam Lazaro, a senior researcher at the International Campaign for Palestinian Rights, said the cell phone tower used by the perpetrators was able to intercept communications before users could install a fix that would prevent it from working in the future.

“They’re capable of either using it as a spoof or being able to use it as an operational tool to survey an area,” de Sam Lazaro said. “And I can tell you using experience, it’s an effective tool to surveil an area.”

It is unclear how and where the spyware was used. An employee at the cell phone tower asked for anonymity because he does not want to jeopardize the station’s career and said the company was not aware that the malware had been found on the phones. He said the station did not receive any accusations of political espionage.

Israeli government spokesman Mark Regev would not say if Israel used Pegasus.

“We operate with the most ethical and professional standards possible,” Regev said. “And we give great care to those who are related to important subjects, such as journalists and human rights workers. It is a duty we assume, of course, for every citizen, whether they’re in the United States or in Israel.”

Israel has a public relations campaign aimed at clarifying its relationship with America’s intelligence community, in the wake of a 2014 report that the US had used the same software on Israeli phones to spy on Israel.

The report was based on a document that was leaked to The Intercept and was named after an NSA contractor, Edward Snowden.

Regev said Tuesday that “in Israel we receive great information about foreign intelligence activities and then we provide a great deal of information to foreign intelligence services. On an annual basis, we give the biggest data about our foreign intelligence activities to the United States.”

— CNN’s Gary Tuchman contributed to this report.


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