Journalist’s Phone Hacked Using An ‘Invisible’ Technique

Amnesty International has said that software developed by Israeli security firm NSO Group was probably used to attack a Moroccan journalist.  Amnesty says Moroccan secuity agncies used NSO's Pegasus software to insert spyware onto the cellphone of Omar Radi, a journalist convicted of a crime in March over a social media post.

Pegasus is reportedly a highly invasive tool that can switch on a target's phone camera and microphone as well as access data on it, effectively turning the phone into a pocket spy.

The iPhone used by Moroccan journalist Omar Radi used to stay in contact with his sources also allowed his government to spy on him and read every email, text and website visited,  listen to every phone call, monitor GPS coordinates and even turn on the camera and microphone to see and hear where the phone was at any moment.

The organisation found that Omar Radi’s phone was subjected to multiple attacks using a sophisticated new technique that silently installed NSO Group’s notorious Pegasus spyware.

The attacks occurred over a period when Radi was being repeatedly harassed by the Moroccan authorities, with one attack taking place just days after NSO pledged to stop its products being used in human rights abuses and continued until at least January 2020. Forensic evidence gathered by Amnesty International on Radi’s phone shows that it was infected by “network injection,” a fully automated method where an attacker intercepts a cellular signal when it makes a request to visit a website. 

In milliseconds, the web browser is diverted to a malicious site and spyware code is downloaded that allows remote access to everything on the phone. The browser then redirects to the intended website and the user is none the wiser.

While Amnesty could not definitively state that the Moroccan authorities were behind the attack, the group was able to use forensic evidence to conclude this was very likely the case.The episode reveals not that authoritarian governments are actively listening to the calls, monitoring the web traffic and reading the emails of journalists and human rights activists, but that they can do so undetected.

Radi is an investigative journalist who co-founded the local news site Le Desk, a partner with the Star in the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. He specialises in the connections between politicians and business people as well as social movements and human rights. In other words, he’s a thorn in the government’s side and a prime target for surveillance, hacking and harassment.

NSO Group, which has been valued at $1 billion, sells surveillance software to governments and law enforcement agencies intended to combat terrorism. Founded in 2010 by Israelis Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, NSO Group is based in the Israeli hi-tech hub of Herzliya, near Tel Aviv andemploys 600 people in Israel and around the world.

Reports from around the world have implicated NSO Group’s spyware in monitoring human rights activists and journalists. Amnesty said forensic data extracted from Radi’s phone indicated he had been subjected network injection attacks in September and February 2019, and January 2020.

Amnesty International and others have documented a pattern of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware being used to target civil society. The spyware has been used in attacks on journalists and parliamentarians in Mexico; Saudi Arabaia and te UAE and allegedly, used in connection with murdered Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

NSO is being sued in the United States by messaging service WhatsApp over alleged cyberespionage on human rights activists and others. 

The Israeli firm says it only licenses its software to governments for "fighting crime and terror" and that it investigates credible allegations of misuse.

Amnesty:      Amnesty:     The Record:      Guardian:        Daily Sabah:

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