Skip to main content

NSO has carried out 'unlawful' surveillance to target Amnesty staff members, HRDs


Counterview Desk
Following the exposure that Israeli spyware Pegasus, manufactured by NSO Group, has been used as a surveillance tool on smartphones used by about 1,500 human rights defenders (HRDs), journalists and activists, including in India, the top rights body, Amnesty International India, has appealed to those who have received a notification immediately to get in touch with Amnesty Tech at share@amnesty.tech for support.
An Amnesty release on November 2 said that the rights body could also be contacted “on Signal or WhatsApp at +44 7492 882216”, adding, “We would be keen to provide support to HRDs, who have been targeted, to ensure they take defensive security measures immediately, as well as to understand more about the attacks and investigate possible infections.”
Meanwhile, Amnesty has put out questions and answers for HRDs, activist, or journalist based in India to understand NSO Group’s spyware Pegasus especially the WhatsApp targeting.

Text:

Q: What do we know about the NSO Group and its ‘Pegasus’ Spyware?
A: ‘NSO Group’ is an Israeli spyware manufacturer that claims to sell its surveillance tools – the most well-known being its Pegasus spyware – exclusively to governments and government agencies ‘to combat terror and crime’.
Its products have been misused multiple times to conduct unlawful surveillance against human rights defenders. In the past, it has been used to target an Amnesty International staff member, HRDs, activists, and journalists from Saudi Arabia, UAE, Mexico, Morocco, and Rwanda.
Q: How does Pegasus work?
A: If infected by the Pegasus spyware, the user’s Smartphone is compromised. It can track keystrokes, take control of the phone’s camera and microphone, and access contact lists and encrypted messages.
Until now, Pegasus is known to be delivered through SMS messages carrying malicious links and through exploiting a zero-day vulnerability on WhatsApp. In the latter, intrusive spyware could be delivered on to the target’s mobile device without the targeted person having to click on a malicious link. The targeted person would simply see a missed call on WhatsApp.
In addition to this, Amnesty International has also found evidence of network injection attacks that could also be attributed to NSO Group. Network injection attacks are generally called “man-in-the-middle” attacks. Through this, an attacker with access to a target’s mobile network connection can monitor and opportunistically hijack web traffic and silently re-route the web browser to malicious exploit pages.
Q: How did the targeting via WhatsApp work?
A: NSO Group exploited a security vulnerability in WhatsApp until May 2019. In order to exploit this, the digital attack initiated WhatsApp calls to the target’s device. Attackers may have tried to exploit this issue by making calls multiple times during the night when the target was likely to be asleep and not notice these calls. Successful infection of the target’s device may result in the app crashing. There is a possibility that the attacker may also remotely erase evidence of these calls from the device’s call logs. Evidence of failed attacks may appear as missed calls from unknown numbers in your WhatsApp call log.
Q: If I didn’t receive a notification from WhatsApp, does this mean I wasn’t targeted by NSO Group’s tools?
A: NSO Group’s Pegasus tool is used for targeted attacks and by design, is not meant for mass surveillance. This means that only select individuals would have been targeted. However, if you are a high risk user, i.e., an activist, journalist, or HRD involved in politically sensitive activism, you cannot presume that you have not been targeted simply because you haven’t received a notification from WhatsApp.
The attack was delivered by exploiting a vulnerability in WhatsApp. However, NSO Pegasus infections can also be delivered through other means. Based on information revealed by our own investigations, an Amnesty International staffer was targeted using SMS messages. One HRD in Morocco was targeted both before and after the attacks using the WhatsApp exploit, but not with the WhatsApp exploit itself. Both of them were targeted using SMS messages containing malicious links and network injection attacks that could also be attributed to NSO Group’s tools. This indicates that NSO Group has the documented capability to deliver infections through means other than WhatsApp.
Q: If WhatsApp was targeted, can’t I just switch to another encrypted platform?
A: No. A vulnerability in the WhatsApp software was exploited to deliver the spyware. All complex software can have these types of vulnerabilities. This vulnerability was not a flaw in WhatsApp’s end-to-end encryption protocol.
This also does not mean that only the Whatsapp data of the target was compromised. If the attack attempt was successful, the spyware would gain full access to the device. Any other data on the device including encrypted platforms such as Signal or Telegram could then also have been accessed.
Q: Can Pegasus plant data into my devices?
A: Based on publicly available information, planting data is not a feature of NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware.
Q: What steps can I take to protect myself?
A: None of the security best practices offer complete and foolproof protection. However, it is a good practice to install the latest software updates of operating systems and encrypted messaging applications on your mobile device.
Pegasus remains a relatively uncommon threat and standard digital hygiene steps are still important. Keep your devices software up-to-date. Use a unique password for each service that you use and store these passwords in a secure password manager. Enable two-factor authentication on all accounts where it is available.

Comments

TRENDING

'Enough evidence': Covid vaccines impacted women's reproductive health

By Deepika*  In 2024, the news outlets have suddenly started reporting about covid vaccine side effects in a very extensive manner. Sadly, the damage is already done.

A Hindu alternative to Valentine's Day? 'Shiv-Parvati was first love marriage in Universe'

By Rajiv Shah*   The other day, I was searching on Google a quote on Maha Shivratri which I wanted to send to someone, a confirmed Shiv Bhakt, quite close to me -- with an underlying message to act positively instead of being negative. On top of the search, I chanced upon an article in, imagine!, a Nashik Corporation site which offered me something very unusual. 

Dadi, poti discuss 'injustice' under 10 yr Modi rule: Video campaign goes viral

By Our Representative  Watan Ki Raah Mein, a civil society campaign of the Samvidhan Bachao Nagrik Abhiyan, has released a short video conversation on social media of an exchange of letters between a dadi and her poti discussing poverty, unemployment, corruption and women’s safety. The letters also raise the question of  suppression of our fundamental rights of speech, expression and justice. 

US 'frustrated' with India’s discomfort: Maritime exercise in South China Sea

By Vijay Prashad*  In early April 2024, the navies of four countries -- Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and the United States -- held a maritime exercise in the South China Sea. Australia’s Warramunga, Japan’s Akebono, the Philippines’ Antonio Luna, and the United States’ Mobile worked together in these waters to strengthen their joint abilities and -- as they said in a joint statement  -- to “uphold the right to freedom of navigation and overflight and respect for maritime rights under international law.” 

WHO move can 'enable' India to detain citizens, restrict freedom, control media

Counterview Desk  In an an open letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with copies to concerned Cabinet ministers, bureaucrats and MPs,  health rights network  People’s Alliance for Public Health (PAPH alias JanSwasthya Morcha), has urged that India should not be a signatory to the World Health Organization ( WHO) Pandemic Agreement and Amendments to the  International Health Regulations (IHR) 2005  to be adopted at the 77th World Health Assembly in Geneva from 27th May to 1st June, 2024.

'Uncertainty in Iran': Raisi brokered crucial Chabahar Port deal with India

By Pranjal Pandey*  Ebrahim Raisi, the Iranian President, and the country’s foreign minister were tragically found deceased on May 20, 2024, shortly after their helicopter crashed in foggy conditions. In response, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei swiftly appointed a relatively unknown vice president as the interim leader.

Informal, outdoor workers 'excluded': Govt of India's excessive heat policies

Counterview Desk  Top civil rights network, National Alliance of People's Movements (NAPM), has demanded urgent government action to protect millions of outdoor workers from extreme heat and heatwaves, insisting declaration of heatwaves as climatic disaster.