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Friday, January 28, 2022

Rights experts slam ‘laughable’ NSO claims against Qatar, BDS amid Pegasus scandal


Journalists, activists and several public figures were among those targeted in a campaign using Israel’s Pegasus spyware.

Co-founder and CEO of Israel’s surveillance company NSO Group Shalev Hulio has claimed that Qatar or the global Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions [BDS] movement are behind the latest Pegasus scandal.

“I believe that it’s either Qatar or BDS, or both. It always ends up being the same entities,” Hulio told Israeli daily Israel Hayom.

“I don’t want to sound cynical, but there are people who don’t want ice cream imported [to Israel] or to see our technologies exported. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in the same week they are trying to prevent Cellebrite from having its IPO, and reports come out about Kandiru and Quadream, and then us. It just doesn’t make sense that it’s all just a big coincidence that everything is happening at the same time,” he claims.

Hulio’s comments on Wednesday came days after reports revealed that the Pegasus spyware, developed by surveillance giant NSO, breached data of at least 50,000 individuals including activists, journalists and world leaders.

The remarks drew criticism worldwide with many pointing to NSO’s apparent lack of accountability.

“It’s pretty laughable that the NSO group is trying to claim some grand conspiracy against its company using absurd accusations and of course failing to actually account for the terrible harm its company has caused to countless of journalists, activists and political leaders,” Sarah Leah Whitson, Executive Director of Democracy for the Arab World Now [DAWN] told Doha News.

How Arab regimes used Israeli spyware to spy on activists, journalists

The Pegasus scandal emerged last week following an Amnesty International investigation that identified some 180 journalists across 20 countries who were selected for potential targeting between 2016 and June 2021 using the Pegasus spyware tool, including many across the Arab world.

Among them were Emirati activist Alaa Al-Siddiq, who passed away last month in a tragic accident while exiled in London, as well as renowned Qatari businessman and beIN chief Nasser Al Khelaifi.

Pegasus enables governments to discreetly hack into mobile phones without knowledge of the user, essentially providing access to crucial information such as messages, location tracking as well as the ability to tap into cameras and microphones.

In response to the reports, Hulio insisted that the programme was “misused” as they only sell the software to governments without monitoring them. He also denied having ties to the list of individuals involved in the hijack operation, suggesting he would be willing to probe the claims.

Rights expert Whitson said Hulio’s comments were contradictory.

“It’s very clear that when the NSO group says that they suspended a number of countries from using their software because they discovered that they were misusing the software, there’s an admission that their technology has been misused,” she said.

On Thursday, Israel announced the launch of a commission to probe the cyberattack and to look into allegations made regarding the programme.

In a lengthy response following the release of the reports, NSO referred to the allegations as “false claims” while failing to deny the findings of the hacking.

“The fact that a number appears on that list is in no way indicative of whether that number was selected for surveillance using Pegasus,” NSO said.

Meanwhile Amnesty said it will continue to stand by its findings, noting that rumours circulating on social media regarding the scandal “are intended to distract from the widespread unlawful targeting of journalists, activists and others that the Pegasus Project has revealed.”

“The NSO group holds direct responsibility for the harm it has caused so many activists, journalists and political officials and I’m glad that they’re being sued and I’m glad that people are now learning about the extent of harm and damage they have caused worldwide,” said Whitson.

“I think the NSO group should be shut down entirely.”

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