Ian Brodie with Reuters – An Israeli company’s spyware was used in attempted and successful hacks of at least 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists around the world, according to an investigation by 17 media organisations published on Sunday, July 18.

One of the organisations, The Washington Post, said the Pegasus spyware licensed by Israel-based NSO Group also was used to target phones belonging to two women close to Jamal Khashoggi, the Post columnist murdered at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018, before and after his death.

The UK’s Guardian, another of the media outlets, said the investigation suggested “widespread and continuing abuse” of NSO’s hacking software, described as malware that infects smartphones to enable the extraction of messages, photos and emails; record calls; and secretly activate microphones.

NSO said its product is intended only for use by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime. The company was set up in 2010 by three Israeli former intelligence operatives, with the initials of their first names forming the company name. It employs 500 people near TelAviv and abroad.

The company issued a statement denying the reporting by the 17 media partners led by the Paris-based journalism non-profit Forbidden Stories.

“The report by Forbidden Stories is full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources. It seems like the ‘unidentified sources’ have supplied information that has no factual basis and are far from reality,” the company said in the statement.

“After checking their claims, we firmly deny the false allegations made in their report,” the statement said.

NSO said its technology was not associated in any way with Khashoggi’s murder

The targeted phone numbers were on a list provided by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International to the 17 media organizations. It was not clear how the groups obtained the list.

The numbers on the list were not attributed, but reporters identified more than 1,000 people spanning more than 50 countries, the Post said. They included several Arab royal family members, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists and more than 600 politicians and government officials – including several heads of state and prime ministers.

The Guardian said the numbers of more than 180 journalists were listed in the data, including reporters, editors and executives at the Financial Times, CNN, New York Times, the Economist, Associated Press and Reuters.

“We are deeply troubled to learn that two AP journalists, along with journalists from many news organisations, are among those who may have been targeted by Pegasus spyware,” said Director of AP Media Relations Lauren Easton.

“We have taken steps to ensure the security of our journalists’ devices and are investigating,” she added.

Reuters’ spokesman Dave Moran said, “Journalists must be allowed to report the news in the public interest without fear of harassment or harm, wherever they are. We are aware of the report and are looking into the matter.”

The states which bought NSO technology include Saudi Arabia and several central Asian countries, not known for their human rights records, Morocco, Mexico and Hungary, the only EU country on the list. According to the media investigation the company’s software was also obtained by several non-state actors, including organised criminal groups.

In recent years Hungary has been an outspoken supporter of Israel and has refused to join in EU condemnations of the mistreatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

On Monday European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said that the pirating of journalists’ smartphones is “Contrary to all the rules we have in the European Union.”

FILE PHOTO: Ursula von der Leyen