Pegasus, a notorious spyware strain from an Israeli company called NSO Group, was allegedly used to hack smartphones belonging to the UK government, including a device at the prime minister’s office.
The findings come from Citizen Lab, a watchdog group in Canada that’s been investigating NSO Group’s activities for years. On Monday, the group announced it had notified the UK government about the Pegasus infections in 2020 and 2021 when they were first detected.
The spyware infections ensnared a phone at UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s office and multiple devices at the Foreign Commonwealth and Development office. “We suspect this included the exfiltration of data,” Bill Marczak tells The New Yorker’s Ronan Farrow.
The infection at Johnson’s office occurred on July 7, 2020. However, UK investigators were unable to determine which phone was compromised, which suggests the Pegasus spyware had deleted itself by then.
Nevertheless, Citizen Lab tells The New Yorker it noticed the Pegasus infection by looking at the spyware’s server data. The watchdog group concluded that a client of NSO Group, the United Arab Emirates, is likely behind the hack of the prime minister’s office.
It’s not entirely clear how the phone was compromised. But the Pegasus spyware is sometimes capable of zero-click attacks, which take over a device simply by sending a malicious text message to the targeted smartphone.
The other spyware infections that targeted the UK’s Foreign Commonwealth and Development office were connected to NSO Group’s clients in the UAE, India, Cyprus, and Jordan. Citizen Lab notes these infections may have targeted phones from UK government personnel who work abroad and use foreign SIM cards.
Citizen Lab issued the findings as it also released an in-depth report on how NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware targeted activists, academics, and government officials in Catalonia, a region of Spain that’s been experiencing an independence movement. According to Citizen Lab, the spying was likely done on behalf of the Spanish government.
“People think that the problem with mercenary spyware is that it is sold to dictators who abuse it. True. But even when spyware like Pegasus is sold to democracies, it gets abused,” Citizen Lab wrote in the report.
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NSO Group didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. But for years, the company has faced accusations that governments across the globe misuse its products to spy on government officials and human rights activists as well as suspected criminals and terrorists.
The allegations have sparked lawsuits against NSO Group from both Apple and WhatsApp. The Biden administration last year also blacklisted NSO Group for its spying activities.
The latest report from Citizen Lab may cause the European Union to call for a harsher crackdown as well. “If one of us is targeted, all of us are targeted,” tweeted European parliament member Hannah Neumann on Monday.
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