NSO spyware allegedly used to hack the phones of State Department officials working in Uganda

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Software from Israeli spyware company NSO Group was reportedly used by an unknown assailant to hack the cellphones of at least nine US State Department employees, which, if confirmed, would be the first time the Ailing firm’s technology was being used to target US officials.

The hack targeted State Department employees in Uganda or specialists in the East African country, two sources familiar with the matter said. Reuters Friday.

All targeted US personnel were using iPhones. Apple last week announced that it was suing the NSO Group for targeting users of its devices, saying the company at the center of the Pegasus surveillance scandal should be held accountable.

The Silicon Valley giant’s lawsuit adds new problems to NSO, which has been engulfed in controversy over reports that tens of thousands of activists, journalists and politicians were listed as potential targets for its Pegasus spyware .

While the phone numbers of US officials were on a long list of potential targets revealed in a series of media reports earlier this year, it has never been confirmed whether these phones were actually hacked.

NSO Group claims that its hacking software cannot work on phones starting with the country code US +1. However, the allegedly hacked State Department employees were using local phones in Uganda, Reuters said.

A branch of the Israeli company NSO Group, near the town of Sapir, in southern Israel, on August 24, 2021. (AP Photo / Sebastian Scheiner)

Responding to the report, which did not identify who ordered the alleged hack, NSO Group said it had no indication that its software was used in such a hack, but canceled the affected accounts and went away. engaged to investigate the matter.

“If our investigation shows that these actions did indeed take place with NSO’s tools, that client will be terminated permanently and legal action will take place,” said a spokesperson for NSO, who added that NSO “will also cooperate with any relevant government authority and will present any information we have, ”the company said in a statement.

When asked to comment, the State Department only highlighted the Commerce Department’s recent decision to blacklist the Israeli company, making it harder for U.S. companies to do business with. she.

“We have been deeply concerned that commercial spyware such as NSO Group software poses a serious counterintelligence and security risk to US personnel,” White House Press Secretary Jen said. Psaki at a briefing later on Friday.

The Ugandan embassy and Apple declined Reuters’ request for comment.

Noting “systemic abuses” in several countries by Israeli society, a senior Biden administration official speaking on condition of anonymity told Reuters that such a hack was the reason the United States decided to crack down on groups like NSO.

The Israeli embassy in Washington said in a statement that targeting US officials would be a serious violation of its rules. The Ministry of Defense must authorize the sale of the products of spyware companies abroad.

In this file photo taken on August 28, 2016, a woman uses her iPhone outside the building housing the Israeli group NSO in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. (Jack Guez / AFP)

“Cyber ​​products like the one mentioned are supervised and allowed to be exported to governments only for purposes related to counterterrorism and serious crime,” said a spokesperson for the Israeli embassy. “The licensing provisions are very clear and if these claims are true, this is a serious violation of those provisions.”

Israel’s ties with Uganda have grown considerably in recent years, especially under former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who was seen as close to Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni (right) and Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni (2nd from right) pose for a photo with then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara Netanyahu at the State House in Entebbe, Uganda, February 3, 2020 (Sumy Sadurni / AFP)

Netanyahu visited Uganda in 2020 where Museveni served as a mediator between Israel and Sudan.

The United States has criticized human rights violations in Uganda.

The NSO group has faced a torrent of international criticism over allegations it helps governments spy on dissidents and rights activists. NSO insists that its product is only intended to help countries fight crime and terrorism.

Marketed to governments for use only against terrorists and criminals, Pegasus gives operators the ability to effectively take full control of a target’s phone, download all device data or activate their camera or its microphone without the user’s knowledge.

The software was allegedly abused by NSO clients to spy on human rights activists, journalists and politicians from Saudi Arabia to Mexico, including targets as high-profile as the fiancee of Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist murdered in the consulate of his country in Istanbul.

The Associated Press asked NSO Group ahead of Friday’s news if it could survive while on the Commerce Department’s entity list. Without responding directly, he said he was “working through all appropriate channels to overturn the Commerce Ministry’s decision.”

AP contributed to this report

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