iPhones of at least nine US State Department employees are said to have been hacked using the Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli technology company, NSO Group. Pegasus is a proprietary and sophisticated spyware capable of the remote surveillance of smartphones.
The employees targeted by an unknown group using the spyware are either “based in Uganda or focused on matters concerning the East African country,” according to Reuters. The hack, which took place a few months back, is said to be the widest known hack of US officials through NSO technology.
Among those notified by Apple for being targeted by the NSO Group spyware is Norbert Mao, president of Uganda’s Democratic party. He tweeted:
The iPhones were infected using a graphics processing vulnerability that Apple only learned about and patched in September this year. The flaw is said to have been taken advantaged of since at least February.
In an interview with CNN, University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab’s John Scott-Railton, who investigated Pegasus, urged the US Bureau of Diplomatic Security to do more to protect State Department devices. “NSO has been a plain-sight national security threat for years, and the fact that these breaches happened and Apple is required to do the notification, shows that the threat was not being taken seriously enough,” Scott-Railton told the news outfit.
NSO Group controversy
Last month, the US Commerce Department blacklisted NSO Group, accusing it of providing spyware to foreign governments who then used the tools “to maliciously target journalists, embassy workers, and activists.” The blacklisting makes doing business with NSO Group more difficult for US companies.
Weeks after, Apple filed a lawsuit against NSO Group for breaking into its iOS platform to target US citizens.
And then last week, 86 human rights groups and experts issued a joint letter to European states, asking them to sanction NSO Group based on credible reporting that the Pegasus spyware has aided governments in abusing human rights.
According to a senior official of the Biden administration, the government is cracking down on companies like NSO Group to protect its citizens stationed in foreign countries and “pursue new global discussion about spying limits”. Sen. Ron Wyden, who is a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is quoted as saying: “Companies that enable their customers to hack US government employees are a threat to America’s national security and should be treated as such.”
NSO Group released a statement on Thursday denying that its tools were used in this hacking incident, and said it was happy to cooperate with relevant government authorities.
“If our investigation shall show these actions indeed happened with NSO’s tools, such customer will be terminated permanently and legal actions will take place.”