Government operatives linked to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates hacked the personal phones belonging to journalists, producers, anchors and executives of the Al Jazeera news network, according to a report obtained by CBC News.
And these types of attacks, claim the Citizen Lab, the report's author, are an "accelerating trend of espionage against journalists and news organizations."
"The increased targeting of the media is especially concerning given the fragmented and often ad-hoc security practices and cultures among journalists and media outlets," said the research group, based at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, which investigates digital espionage.
In the case of Al Jazeera, the Citizen Lab — working with the Qatar-based broadcaster's IT team — said it found that in July and August, at least four operatives used Pegasus spyware to hack 36 personal phones of journalists and senior executives.
Enables clients to monitor devices
Pegasus spyware, created by the Israeli firm NSO Group, is a mobile phone surveillance system that enables customers to remotely exploit and monitor devices, the Citizen Lab said. Researchers from the Citizen Lab have authored multiple reports on what they claim is the misuse of the spyware developed by the company.
The research group concluded that one of the four Pegasus operators spied on 18 phones and did so on behalf of the Saudi government. Another one of the four can be linked to the U.A.E. government and spied on 15 phones, the report claimed.
Meanwhile, the personal phone of a London-based Al Araby TV journalist was also compromised, the Citizen Lab claims.
The spyware is able to record audio from the microphone, including audio of encrypted phone calls, and take pictures, the report said. It can also track device location, as well as access passwords and stored credentials, according to the report.
The attack used what are known as zero-click exploits that can break into phones without any interaction by the phone's user.
"The zero-click aspect is one of the things that's really scary here," Bill Marczak, a researcher at the Citizen Lab and one of the co-authors of the report, told CBC News. "What this means is that you can be sitting, relaxing, your phone can be locked, sitting on a table somewhere else, and it can get hacked while you're not doing anything."
One investigative journalist from Al Jazeera who thought his phone was hacked allowed the Citizen Lab to install a VPN application to monitor metadata associated with his Internet traffic.
When researchers reviewed his VPN logs, they found that in July, his phone — without his knowledge — had visited a website used to infect a target with the Pegasus spyware, the report said.
Both Saudi Arabia and the U.A.E. have had a fractious relationship with Qatar and Al Jazeera. As the Citizen Lab noted, both countries have concerns about Al Jazeera's critical coverage, including of the Arab Spring uprisings in the early 2010s. The governments also claim that Qatar shelters dissidents from Egypt, Bahrain, the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, and supports political Islamist groups.
During their diplomatic crisis with Qatar in 2017, both countries blocked Al Jazeera's websites and channels.
Earlier this year, the Citizen Lab reported that a New York Times journalist was targeted by a Saudi-linked operator using the same Pegasus spyware. And in 2019, the Citizen Lab concluded that the same software was used to spy on Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi's inner circle before he was killed in October 2018 at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Along with the U.A.E. and Saudi Arabia, such digital attacks also come from China, Russia, Ethiopia and Mexico.
50 known cases
The Citizen Lab said with this latest attack on Al Jazeera, there are at least 50 publicly known cases of journalists and others in media targeted with NSO spyware.
Marczak said members of the general public don't necessarily need to be concerned about being hacked like this themselves because the spyware is so expensive and it's licensed based on the number of targets that the government wants to spy on.
"That said, I think it should be very concerning to members of the public that people that they rely on to hold those in power to account might be being sabotaged by this sort of surveillance."
NSO Group has said it develops technologies that governments and law enforcement agencies can use to track and intercept terror activity, break up organized crime operations and even search for missing persons.
It has said that it sells only to responsible countries after diligent vetting and with Israeli government approval.