Dozens of activists, journalists hacked by Israeli Pegasus spyware in Jordan

Dozens of activists, journalists hacked by Israeli Pegasus spyware in Jordan
Thirty-five political activists, journalists and human rights defenders were targeted by the Israeli Pegasus spyware in Jordan.
3 min read
01 February, 2024
Rights groups have noted a steady erosion of civic space in Jordan in recent years, with the government stepping up repression of free speech and activism. [Getty]

Thirty-five activists, journalists and lawyers in Jordan were found to have been targeted by the Israeli spyware Pegasus, an investigation by Access Now and Citizen Lab revealed on Thursday, 1 February.

Pegasus is a spyware created by the Israeli company NSO Group, which grants users access to the entire contents of targets' cell phones and allows them to monitor phone calls.

The individuals targeted were members of Jordanian civil society engaged in defending civic and political freedoms, journalists covering stories about corruption and human rights activists. 

The number of those targeted by the Pegasus software is one of the largest anywhere in the world, despite each individual hacking attempt costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

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Among those hacked or attempted to be hacked were two members of the US-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Jordan, a lawyer, and two journalists from the Organisation for Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

"We believe this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the use of Pegasus spyware in Jordan and that the true number of victims is likely much higher," the Access Now report said.

Some victims were hacked by a "zero-click attack," which infects the phone without the user clicking on any links. Others were the target of sophisticated social engineering schemes, with hackers impersonating known journalists to get targets to click on spyware links.

The hacking of dozens of members of civil society comes after years of shrinking freedoms in Jordan and repression of activists by state security services.

According to a September 2022 HRW report, Jordanian authorities "detain, interrogate, and harass journalists, political activists and members of political parties … and restrict their access to basic rights."

Members of civil society are often arrested, monitored or intimidated through unlawful means or via the use of vague laws in an attempt to muzzle them.

In August 2023, Jordan passed a new version of its cybercrime law, criminalising a vast slew of behaviour online, which activists said gave authorities overly broad powers to silence free speech.

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The report did not specify who commissioned the hacking of members of Jordanian civil society. Determining the origin of Pegasus hacks is often impossible to determine, even with analysis of infected phones.

Instead, the report called on the Jordanian government to ensure "prompt, impartial, and independent investigation into hacking allegations," as well as to uphold its constitution and human rights obligations under international law to protect the rights of freedom of expression.

It further demanded that the Jordanian government stop intimidating and surveilling members of civil society.

Members of civil society have previously been targeted by Pegasus. In an April 2022 report, rights monitor Frontline Defenders said it was "highly likely" that the Jordanian government agencies commissioned past uses of the spyware.

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Among the hacked were five members of the National Forum for the Defense of Freedoms, a Jordanian legal body that provides pro-bono representation to activists, political prisoners and other citizens.

One of those targeted from the National Forum was Alaa al-Hiyari, the lawyer of famed Jordanian political satirist Ahmad Hassan al-Zoubi, who recently faced jail time over a Facebook post.