Israeli spyware likely to proliferate in Mid East amid Al Jazeera journalists hack, says report

According to Citizen Lab, 36 Al Jazeera journalists were attacked with spyware - AP / AP
Israeli spyware may be increasingly used by Middle Eastern governments following the recent normalization agreements with Israel, said a researcher tracking surveillance companies after his group claimed to have uncovered hacks by dozens of Al Jazeera journalists.
Malware, likely created by Israeli spy technology company NSO Group, targeted 36 reporters for the state broadcaster in Qatar and a London-based journalist for another network in Qatar. This is according to a report released on Sunday by researchers at the University of Toronto's Citizen Lab.
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The cyber attack was characterized by the use of “zero-click” software that infected target phones without user interaction and enabled employees to access all information on the device and activate the microphone to eavesdrop on conversations.
It is believed that almost all iPhone devices that are not running Apple's latest iOS 14 version, which was released in September, are vulnerable to the code.
The report's authors concluded with "medium confidence" that the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both users of the NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, were behind the attacks.
After Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates recently established diplomatic relations with Israel and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secretly visited Saudi Arabia to meet Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the use of Israeli spyware in the region could now accelerate.
Bill Marczak, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, told the Associated Press that customers for similar Israeli software could include "a much wider range of government agencies and customers in the Gulf".
There is no evidence that the Herzliya-based NSO Group was involved in the hack. The company questioned the Citizen Lab report in a statement in which it said that "not all that has to do with us is actually a use of our technology," designed only to fight terrorism and crime.
The government of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates did not respond to requests for comment, but the two countries have long called for the closure of Al Jazeera and since June 2017 have enforced a diplomatic and economic blockade on Qatar by accusing Doha of terrorism support and be too close to Iran.
The two countries, along with Bahrain and Egypt, have made the closure of the Qatari Canal a prerequisite for restoring relations. Qatar rejects the claims, saying the conditions for lifting the blockade are an attack on its sovereignty.
The target of the cyberattacks on journalists is likely to obtain compromising personal data in order to blackmail or shame the victim and their employers, experts say. Previous targets include journalists criticizing Saudi Arabia.
In April, intimate photos of Lebanese Al Jazeera anchor Ghada Oueiss were posted online. Ms. Oueiss said she was the victim of a hacking operation intended to undermine her character and career.
In a lawsuit filed in the United States last week, Ms. Oueiss accused Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Abu Dhabi's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed of assuming responsibility, along with other Saudi and UAE officials.
Al Jazeera's 36 Citizen Lab employees identified as the target audience represent the vast majority of approximately 50 journalists known to be infected with Pegasus spyware.
Marc Owen Jones, professor at Hamad Bin Khalifa University and an expert on digital authoritarianism in the Middle East, said this shows "the UAE or Saudi Arabs' unstoppable obsession with Al Jazeera and the frivolous use of spyware".
"The psychological consequences and fear of harm for those involved in hack and leak operations are clear," he said.
“I think the prospect of blackmail in particular is incredibly dangerous for freedom of expression. Who knows the immeasurable implications, especially in relation to censorship or maybe even becoming an informant, that the risk of blackmail could have on someone? "

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