Government hacks Journalists, NGOs, politicians, human rights activists’ phones with Pegasus spyware malicious software

Governments are using spyware developed by NSO Group to hack into the phones of thousands of their most voiced critics, including journalists, activists, politicians and business executives.

It has been established that more 50,000 phone numbers, journalists identified more than 1,000 people in 50 countries supposedly under surveillance using the Pegasus spyware.

The software was developed by the Israeli company NSO Group and sold to government clients over the world.

The spyware can capture keystrokes, intercept communications, track the device and use the camera and microphone to spy on the user.

The Pegasus spyware can simply infects the phones of victims.

The initial hack can involve a skilled SMS or iMessage which givess a link to a website. If clicked, this link delivers malicious software that compromises the device.

The aim is to grab full control of the mobile device’s operating system, either by rooting on Android devices) or jailbreaking or on Apple iOS devices.

Generally, rooting on an Android device is done by the user to install applications and games from non-supported app stores, or re-enable a functionality that was disabled by the manufacturer.

Likewise, a jailbreak can be deployed on Apple devices to allow the installation of apps not accessible on the Apple App Store, or to unlock the phone for use on alternative cellular networks. Many jailbreak approaches require the phone to be connected to a computer each time it’s turned on (referred to as a “tethered jailbreak”).

Rooting and jailbreaking both remove the security controls embedded in Android or iOS operating systems. They are typically a combination of configuration changes and a “hack” of core elements of the operating system to run modified code.

In the case of spyware, once a device is unlocked, the perpetrator can deploy further software to secure remote access to the device’s data and functions. This user is likely to remain completely unaware.

It is in the very nature of spyware to remain covert and undetected on a device. However there are mechanisms in place to show whether your device has been compromised.

The (relatively) easy way to determine this is to use the Amnesty International Mobile Verification Toolkit (MVT). This tool can run under either Linux or MacOS and can examine the files and configuration of your mobile device by analysing a backup taken from the phone.

While the analysis won’t confirm or disprove whether a device is compromised, it detects “indicators of compromise” which can provide evidence of infection.

In particular, the tool can detect the presence of specific software (processes) running on the device, as well as a range of domains used as part of the global infrastructure supporting a spyware network.

Over the weekend, an international consortium of news outlets reported that several authoritarian governments — including Mexico, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates — used spyware developed by NSO Group to hack into the phones of thousands of their most vocal critics, including journalists, activists, politicians and business executives.

A leaked list of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets was obtained by Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International and shared with the reporting consortium, including The Washington Post and The Guardian. Researchers analyzed the phones of dozens of victims to confirm they were targeted by the NSO’s Pegasus spyware, which can access all of the data on a person’s phone. The reports also confirm new details of the government customers themselves, which NSO Group closely guards. Hungary, a member of the European Union where privacy from surveillance is supposed to be a fundamental right for its 500 million residents, is named as an NSO customer.

The reporting shows for the first time how many individuals are likely targets of NSO’s intrusive device-level surveillance. Previous reporting had put the number of known victims in the hundreds or more than a thousand.

NSO Group sharply rejected the claims. NSO has long said that it doesn’t know who its customers target, which it reiterated in a statement to TechCrunch on Monday.

Researchers at Amnesty, whose work was reviewed by the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, found that NSO can deliver Pegasus by sending a victim a link which when opened infects the phone, or silently and without any interaction at all through a “zero-click” exploit, which takes advantage of vulnerabilities in the iPhone’s software. Citizen Lab researcher Bill Marczak said in a tweet that NSO’s zero-clicks worked on iOS 14.6, which until today was the most up-to-date version.

Amnesty’s researchers showed their work by publishing meticulously detailed technical notes and a toolkit that they said may help others identify if their phones have been targeted by Pegasus.

The Mobile Verification Toolkit, or MVT, works on both iPhones and Android devices, but slightly differently. Amnesty said that more forensic traces were found on iPhones than Android devices, which makes it easier to detect on iPhones. MVT will let you take an entire iPhone backup (or a full system dump if you jailbreak your phone) and feed in for any indicators of compromise (IOCs) known to be used by NSO to deliver Pegasus, such as domain names used in NSO’s infrastructure that might be sent by text message or email. If you have an encrypted iPhone backup, you can also use MVT to decrypt your backup without having to make a whole new copy.


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