Israeli firm 'created spyware' for snooping on Arab activists

Israeli firm 'created spyware' for snooping on Arab activists
Apple issues immediate security update for users after spyware discovered that turns devices into mobile spying units.
2 min read
28 Aug, 2016
An iPhone user outside the building that houses the NSO group near Tel Aviv [AFP]

An Israeli technology firm has been accused of producing spyware that was used in attempts to take over the Apple iPhones of Middle Eastern rights activists.

The discovery of the interceptive software, which turns personal devices into mobile spying equipment, was announced on Thursday by San Francisco-based smartphone security company Lookout and watchdog group Citizen Lab.

Following the announcement, Apple issued an immediate software update for iPhone users that aimed to prevent the exploitation of an existing flaw in the mobile's operating system. The flaw allowed for the tracing of calls and contacts, password collection, text message and email reading, call recording and locating the user's wherabouts.

Targeting activists

The security hole came under the spotlight after award-winning Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor was targeted by the malware.

Mansoor - who has previously been arrested, tortured and barred from travel - forwarded Citizen Lab a suspicious message containing hyperlinks that had been sent to him. The message promised to reveal details of torture committed in the UAE's prisons.

A seasoned activist, Mansoor did not fall for the ruse as he had already been targeted by two other types of spyware in the past.

Citizen Lab said that UAE's government was the "likely operator behind the targeting". It also traced the spyware's creation to the Israeli NSO Group - a firm which produces and sells spyware to foreign governments, among others. 

NSO chief executive Shalev Hulio passed questions about the spyware to a spokesman, who refused to confirm or deny the company's involvement in the case. 

Targeted: Human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor [Getty]

In a statement, NSO said:

"The agreements signed with the company's customers require that the company’s products only be used in a lawful manner...Specifically, the products may only be used for the prevention and investigation of crimes."

Links to Israeli intelligence

Hulio, a founder of the NSO Group, once served as in the IDF's notorious Unit 8200, which is charged with gathering signal intelligence and code decryption.

Unit 8200 has been accused of using mobile phone and computer technology to spy on the lives of ordinary Palestinians, including children.

According to a former Unit 8200 officer who spoke to the New Arab in 2015, information gathered is often used to blackmail Palestinian civilians into becoming informants for Israeli intelligence.

Both government and private tech firms in Israel have competed aggressively in pioneering cyber warfare technology. Some industry-insiders have previously boasted that the country's expertise in this field is around 15 years ahead of the rest of the world.