Government officials linked to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have hacked the personal phones of journalists, producers, anchors and executives of the Al Jazeera news network, according to a report by CBC News.
And these types of attacks, according to the report’s author, Citizen Lab, are “an accelerating trend of espionage against journalists and news organizations.”
“The increased media exposure particularly affects the fragmented and often ad hoc security practices and cultures of journalists and media companies,” said the research group at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy investigating digital espionage.
In the case of Al Jazeera, the Citizen Lab, working with the IT team at the Qatar-based broadcaster, found that at least four employees used Pegasus spyware to hack 36 journalists ‘and executives’ personal phones in July and August.
Allows clients to monitor devices
Pegasus spyware, developed by Israeli company NSO Group, is a cell phone surveillance solution that allows customers to use and monitor devices remotely, according to Citizen Lab. Citizen Lab researchers have authored several reports on what they believe to be the misuse of the company’s spyware.
The research group concluded that one of the four Pegasus operators spied on 18 phones and did so on behalf of the Saudi government. Another of the four can be linked to the UAE government and spied on on 15 phones, the report said.
Meanwhile, the personal phone of a London-based Al Araby television journalist has also been compromised, the Citizen Lab claims.
The spyware can pick up audio from the microphone, including audio from encrypted phone calls, and take pictures, the report said. According to the report, it can also track the location of the device as well as access passwords and saved credentials.
“The zero-click techniques used against Al Jazeera employees were sophisticated, difficult to detect and largely focused on reporters’ personal devices,” the report said.
An investigative journalist from Al Jazeera who believed his phone had been hacked allowed Citizen Lab to install a VPN application to monitor metadata associated with its internet traffic.
When researchers checked his VPN logs, they found that in July, without his knowledge, his phone had visited a website that infected a target with the Pegasus spyware.
Both Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had fragile relationships with Qatar and Al Jazeera. As the Citizen Lab noted, both countries have concerns about the critical coverage of Al Jazeera, including the Arab Spring riots in the early 2010s. The governments also claim that Qatar protects dissidents from Egypt, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia and supports political Islamist groups.
Citizen Lab claims that at least four employees used Pegasus spyware to use Al Jazeera to hack 36 journalists ‘and executives’ personal phones. (Marco Jose / The Associated Press)
During their diplomatic crisis with Qatar in 2017, both countries blocked Al Jazeera’s websites and channels.
Earlier this year, Citizen Lab reported that a New York Times journalist had been attacked with the same Pegasus spyware by a Saudi-affiliated operator. And in 2019, the Citizen Lab concluded that the same software was used to spy on the inner circle of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi before he was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
In addition to the UAE and Saudi Arabia, such digital attacks are also coming from China, Russia, Ethiopia and Mexico.
50 known cases
Citizen Lab said there were at least 50 publicly known cases of journalists and others in the media targeting NSO spyware in this latest attack on Al Jazeera.
The NSO Group has announced that it will develop technology that will enable governments and law enforcement agencies to track and intercept terrorist activity, disband organized crime operations and even search for missing people.
It has been said that it will only be sold to responsible countries after careful scrutiny and with the consent of the Israeli government.