Israeli private spy software hacked into the smartphones of human rights activists and journalists

Spy software developed by an Israeli company was licensed to governments to track terrorists and criminals, but was also used to hack into the smartphones of human rights activists, business executives and journalists, according to a global investigation by 17 media partners.

The media outlets reported Sunday that 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives and two women close to the murdered Saudi journalist Khashoggi were on a list of more than 50,000 numbers concentrated in countries that spy on their citizens.

These countries are clients of the Israeli company NSO Group, a global leader in the largely unregulated private spyware industry.

In its article on the spyware, one of its media partners, The Washington Post, said the phone numbers on the list were not identified by name, but journalists were able to identify more than 1,000 people in 50 countries on the list, including several Arab royals, at least 65 corporate executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists and more than 600 politicians and government officials, including several heads of state and prime ministers.

The list includes journalists working overseas for the Voice of America, CNN, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, France’s Le Monde, London’s Financial Times and Qatar’s Al Jazeera as of 2016.

Paris-based nonprofit news organization Forbidden Stories and human rights group Amnesty International obtained the list and shared it with news organizations, which then researched the information. It is not clear who included the phone numbers on the list or whether the callers were monitored.

The NSO Group said it licensed its Pegasus spy software to track terrorists and criminals. It said the results of the media investigation were exaggerated and unfounded. The company said it does not operate the spy software it licenses to its customers and has “no insight” into any of the intelligence they collect.

NSO Group said the company’s customers include 60 intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies in 40 countries, but declined to disclose any of them.