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Undercover spies caught fishing for anti-Israel remarks following Canadian sting – National

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When mysterious operatives lured two Toronto-based cybersecurity researchers to meetings at luxury hotels over the past two months, it was an apparent bid to discredit their research about an Israeli company that makes smartphone hacking technology used by some governments to spy on their citizens. The Associated Press has now learned of similar undercover efforts targeting at least four other individuals who have raised questions about the use of the Israeli firm’s spyware.


READ MORE:
Toronto-based Citizen Lab, which exposed Israeli spy software, targeted by undercover agents

The four others targeted by operatives include three lawyers involved in related lawsuits in Israel and Cyprus alleging that the company, the NSO Group, sold its spyware to governments with questionable human rights records. The fourth is a London-based journalist who has covered the litigation. Two of them — the journalist and a Cyprus-based lawyer — were secretly recorded meeting the undercover operatives; footage of them was broadcast on Israeli television just as the AP was preparing to publish this story.

All six of the people who were targeted said they believe the operatives were part of a coordinated effort to discredit them.

“There’s somebody who’s really interested in sabotaging the case,” said one of the targets, Mazen Masri, who teaches at City University, London and is advising the plaintiffs’ attorney in the case in Israel.

Masri said the operatives were “looking for dirt and irrelevant information about people involved.”

WATCH BELOW: Is technology becoming creepier?






The details of these covert efforts offer a glimpse into the sometimes shadowy world of private investigators, which includes some operatives who go beyond gathering information and instead act as provocateurs. The targets told the AP that the covert agents tried to goad them into making racist and anti-Israel remarks or revealing sensitive information about their work in connection with the lawsuits.

NSO has previously said it has nothing to do with the undercover efforts “either directly or indirectly.” It did not return repeated messages asking about the new targets identified by the AP. American private equity firm Francisco Partners, which owns NSO, did not return a message from the AP seeking comment.

The undercover operatives’ activities might never have been made public had it not been for two researchers who work at Citizen Lab, an internet watchdog group that is based out of the University of Toronto’s Munk School.

In December, one of the researchers, John Scott-Railton, realized that a colleague had been tricked into meeting an operative at a Toronto hotel, then questioned about his work on NSO. When a second operative calling himself Michel Lambert approached Scott-Railton to arrange a similar meeting at the Peninsula Hotel in New York, Scott-Railton devised a sting operation, inviting AP journalists to interrupt the lunch and videotape the encounter.

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at the Citizen Lab, poses for a photograph, Thursday, Jan. 17, 2019, in New York.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

The story drew wide attention in Israel. Within days, Israeli investigative television show Uvda and The New York Times identified Lambert as Aharon Almog-Assouline, a former Israeli security official living in the plush Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon.

By then, Scott-Railton and the AP had determined the undercover efforts went well beyond Citizen Lab.

Within hours of the story’s publication, Masri wrote to the AP to say that he and Alaa Mahajna, who is pursuing the lawsuit against NSO in Israel, had spent weeks parrying offers from two wealthy-sounding executives who had contacted them with lucrative offers of work and insistent requests to meet in London.

“We were on our guard and did not take the bait,” Masri wrote.

Masri’s revelation prompted a flurry of messages to others tied to litigation involving NSO. Masri and Scott-Railton say they discovered that Christiana Markou, a lawyer representing plaintiffs in a related lawsuit against NSO-affiliated companies in Cyprus, had been flown to London for a strange meeting with someone who claimed to be a Hong Kong-based investor. Around the same time, Masri found out that a journalist who had written about NSO was also invited to a London hotel — twice — and questioned about his reporting.

“Things are getting more interesting,” Masri wrote as the episodes emerged.

Bumbling spies

Like Almog-Assouline, the undercover operative the AP exposed in New York, the covert agents who pursued the lawyers made a string of operational errors.

In this image from video, a man who identified himself as Michel Lambert, a director at the Paris-based agricultural technology firm CPW-Consulting, reacts during an interview at a restaurant in New York on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.

AP Photo/Joseph Frederick

The attempt to ensnare Alaa Mahajna, the lead lawyer in the Israeli suit, was a case in point.

On Nov. 26 he heard from a man who said his name was Marwan Al Haj and described himself as a partner at a Swedish wealth management firm called Lyndon Partners. Al Haj offered Mahajna an intriguing proposition. Al Haj said one of his clients, an ultra-rich individual with family ties to the Middle East, needed legal assistance recovering family land seized by Jewish settlers following the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

“I believe you may be a good fit for this challenging task,” Al Haj wrote.

The request made sense. As a human rights lawyer based in Jerusalem, Mahajna has defended Palestinian activists and others at the receiving end of the Israeli government’s ire. But Mahajna became suspicious as he tried to learn more about the case. Al Haj was cagey about his client and seemed unwilling to provide any paperwork, Mahajna told the AP.

“Not even the basic stuff,” Mahajna said. “Usually people flood you with documents and stories.”

WATCH BELOW: Is your phone listening to your every word?






Mahajna said he was unsettled when Al Haj suddenly offered him an all-expenses-paid trip to London; no one had even asked him whether the case had any hope of success.

“At some point it was abundantly clear that this is not a bona fide approach,” Mahajna said.

Ten days later, Masri, the legal adviser in the Israeli lawsuit, received an email offering him a place on the advisory board of a Zurich-based company called APOL Consulting.

Masri became skeptical after he checked out the company’s website. Consulting firms typically trade on their employees’ intelligence and skill, so Masri expected the company’s site to prominently display the names, headshots and qualifications of its staff.

“Here there wasn’t even a name of one human,” he said.

When Masri turned down the position on APOL’s board, the representative who’d contacted him — a man who called himself Cristian Ortega — pressed Masri to see him in London anyway.

“I would consider it a privilege to have a chance to meet you in person for a friendly chat,” Ortega said in a Jan. 7 email. “No strings attached of course.”

Masri said that by then he and Mahajna had come to believe that Ortega and Al Haj were fictions and that their companies were imaginary.

But they didn’t yet know how widespread the covert operations were.

International targets

The undercover agents got a little further with Christiana Markou, the lawyer who is pursuing the Cypriot case against NSO-affiliated entities.

Her lawsuit, like Mahajna’s, draws heavily on reports by Citizen Lab that found that NSO spyware had been used to break into the phones of the Mexican activists and journalists who are the plaintiffs in both cases.

Markou told the AP she was approached over email Dec. 21 by a man who presented himself as Olivier Duffet, a partner at Hong Kong-based ENE Investments.

WATCH BELOW: How to protect yourself from ransomware






Duffet was ostensibly interested in inviting Markou — a leading data protection and privacy lawyer in Cyprus — to give a lecture at a conference. Markou said she proposed discussing the lecture over Skype, but he insisted on an in-person meeting in London, eventually flying her out, putting her up in a fancy hotel and chatting for a little more than an hour.

Most of the discussion revolved around the proposed lecture — but then Duffet suddenly pivoted to the NSO case, asking her whether she felt the lawsuit was winnable and who was funding it.

Markou said she “gave either incorrect answers or expressly refused to answer” because she found his questions suspicious.

Yet another target, Eyad Hamid, a London-based journalist who wrote a story about NSO, said he was also invited to a London hotel on two separate occasions to discuss his coverage of the Israeli company.

The purported company used in the operation targeting him was Mertens-Giraud Partners Management, which was described as a Brussels-based wealth management firm.


READ MORE:
Khashoggi case sheds light on Turkey’s history of spying and surveillance

Neither MGP — nor any of the other companies — truly existed. The AP’s searches of the Orbis database of some 300 million companies, local corporate registries and trademark repositories turned up no trace of a Swiss firm called APOL, a Swedish company called Lyndon partners, a Belgian company called Mertens-Giraud or a Hong Kong-based firm named ENE Investments. Local phone books didn’t carry listings for a Zurich-based man named Cristian Ortega, a Hong Kong-based man named Olivier Duffet or anyone in Sweden bearing the name Marwan Al Haj.

There was no hint of APOL when the AP visited its supposed office not far from Zurich’s central train station; tenants said they’d never heard of the company. It was the same story in Hong Kong; a management representative at the Central Building, where ENE Investments was supposedly located, said he didn’t know anything about the company. An AP journalist wasn’t able to speak to anyone at Mertens-Giraud’s alleged office on Brussels’ Rue des Poissoniers; the entire building was boarded up for renovations.

At the modern office block in downtown Stockholm where Lyndon Partners claimed to have its headquarters, service manager Elias Broberger said he could find no trace of the wealth management firm.

“It says they are located here,” Broberger said as he examined Lyndon Partners’ professional-looking website. “But we don’t have them in any of our systems: not the booking system; not the member system. We don’t bill them; they don’t bill us.

“I can’t find them.”

Who’s in charge?

Who hired the undercover agents remains unclear, but their operational and digital fingerprints suggest they are linked.

The six operatives all began approaching their targets around the same time with individually tailored pitches. Their bogus websites followed the same patterns; all of them were hosted on Namecheap and many were bought at auction from GoDaddy and used the Israeli web design platform Wix. The formatting of the websites was similar; in at least two instances — MGP and Lyndon Partners — it was identical. Even the operatives’ email signatures were the same — consisting of three neatly packed, colorful lines consisting of a phone number, web address and email.

WATCH BELOW: FaceTime bug allows users to eavesdrop on recipient






The operatives’ LinkedIn pages were similar, too, featuring men in sunglasses shot from a distance, facing away from the camera, or at unusual angles — a tactic sometimes use to frustrate facial recognition algorithms.

Despite the indications that the undercover agents are all linked, there is no conclusive evidence who they might work for. An Israeli television channel, Channel 12, broadcast a report on Saturday claiming that an Israeli private investigation firm, Black Cube, had been investigating issues around the lawsuits against NSO. The TV channel showed secretly shot footage of the Cypriot lawyer, Markou, and the London journalist, Hamid, which matched the pair’s description of their encounters with undercover agents.

The TV segment was critical of the lawyers suing NSO, and quoted NSO founder Shalev Hulio in an interview accusing Markou and her colleagues of pursuing the lawsuits as a “PR exercise.”

NSO has previously denied hiring Black Cube, and Black Cube in a letter sent last month to the AP said it was not involved in the effort to ensnare researchers at Citizen Lab. “Black Cube had nothing to do with these alleged events,” the letter said, adding that no one acting on the company’s behalf did either.


READ MORE:
Trump aides hired Israeli spy firm in attempt to kill Iran deal – report

Black Cube does have a possible tie to Almog-Assouline, the man who held the hotel meeting about NSO in New York. During a long-running Canadian legal battle between two private equity firms — Catalyst Capital and West Face Capital — one man caught up in the litigation said he recognized Almog-Assouline because he’d been approached by the same operative under a different identity several years ago.

“I recognized the individual, down to the accent and the anecdotes,” said the man, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.


READ MORE:
Israeli spy firm that helped Harvey Weinstein gather info on accusers regrets taking the job

In court filings, Black Cube has acknowledged dispatching agents to meet with “various individuals” involved in the private equity firms’ feud. But it’s unclear if other investigations firms might also have done work connected to the two companies’ legal battle.

Black Cube did not respond to repeated questions about whether it had ever employed Almog-Assouline. The firm previously drew international opprobrium for its unrelated work protecting the reputation of disgraced Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.

Almog-Assouline himself denied working for Black Cube when two AP reporters confronted him in New York last month.

He has refused to answer any questions since.

When an AP reporter rang the door at his penthouse in Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon a week ago, a woman who identified herself as his wife said he wasn’t home. When the reporter followed up with a phone call to Almog-Assouline, he said: “I have no interest in speaking to you.”

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Canadian captured in Syria admits to role in gruesome ISIS execution videos

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A Canadian captured in northern Syria last month has admitted he helped produce ISIS propaganda videos that showed prisoners digging their own graves and being executed, according to a local source.

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Mohammed Abdullah Mohammed, who was detained by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces on Jan. 13, acknowledged his role in the ISIS videos Flames of War and Flames of War 2, the Rojava Information Centre said.

“Our sources in YPG confirmed that he is the narrator of both FoW [Flames of War] videos,” the group said. The YPG is the Kurdish militia that dominates the SDF alliance fighting ISIS.

The group said he had acknowledged writing the scripts but that it could not yet confirm it’s his voice heard reading them in the videos, although that now seems likely.

WATCH: Canadian ISIS fighter talks about his capture






Shortly after Mohammed was caught in the last patch of ISIS territory, Global News reported he seemed to be the long-sought Canadian narrator of the videos and many of the terror group’s other releases.

His alleged admission came as the government is under pressure to take back and prosecute captured Canadian ISIS members, and the RCMP is struggling to collect enough evidence to charge them.

The U.S. State Department has asked countries to repatriate and put captured ISIS members on trial. A lobby group for the families of those in detention, Families Against Violent Extremism, said 29 Canadians were being held in Kurdish camps and prisons, and two more were still attempting to surrender.

They include women who had married ISIS foreign fighters, and their children, but also several self-admitted foreign terrorist fighters from Toronto and Montreal like Mohammed.


READ MORE:
Narrator of ISIS execution video is Canadian, says captured Mississauga ISIS member

In the English-language Flames of War video, the narrator praised jihadist foreign fighters who had come to Syria from around the world and said they were “chosen by Allah.”

During a scene that showed the mass execution of prisoners lying face-down, he said ISIS was “harsh against the kuffar [non-believers]. This harshness never wavered and was a constant trait of the brothers.”

The 55-minute video ended with a row of kneeling prisoners being shot in the back of the head and tumbling forward into the mass grave they have just dug with shovels.

The same narrator’s voice can be heard in the 2017 video Flames of War 2, which similarly showed prisoners digging their own graves and ends with their execution. The same voice appears to have claimed responsibility for the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris that killed 130.

WATCH: U.S. urging allies to bring home foreign ISIS fighters






But his identity remained a mystery until a captured Canadian ISIS fighter, Muhammad Ali, identified him to Global News last October as an Ontario man who went by Abu Ridwan.

Ali said he believed Abu Ridwan was still alive.

Last month, as Kurdish fighters closed in on the last area of ISIS-held territory, they detained Mohammed Abdullah Mohammed, who told his captors he was a former student at Toronto’s Ryerson University who had joined ISIS in 2013.

A childhood friend subsequently told Canadian terrorism researcher Prof. Amarnath Amarasingam that Mohammed was “Abu Ridwan” and the voice heard in ISIS propaganda.


READ MORE:
Canadian women fleeing ISIS territory surrender to U.S.-backed forces in Syria

The RCMP has been investigating Mohammed, who surrendered following a firefight, but he has not been charged. It’s unclear what weight his admission to his captors could have as evidence in court.

The Canadian open source intelligence group iBrabo has located the site of the mass execution shown at the end of the first Flames of War video and suggested the RCMP treat it as a crime scene for evidence purposes.

A former senior Canadian Security Intelligence Service official, Andrew Ellis, said in a 2016 speech at the Royal Canadian Military Institute that “many” Canadians were active in the ISIS propaganda wing.

“I would argue that that may be equally as dangerous, maybe more, than someone who is joining the military wing. A lot of these young Western adherents to Daesh are put on the frontlines and die very quickly.

“Someone who is working in the propaganda wing can hurt us over and over and over again,” he said.

Stewart.Bell@globalnews.ca

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.



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Critics call for ‘robust’ oversight of CBSA following CBC reports on staff misconduct

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Advocacy groups are again calling for « robust, independent and external oversight » of the country’s border service following reporting by CBC News on misconduct at the Canada Border Services Agency.

CBC News recently reported that the agency investigated around 1,200 allegations of staff misconduct between January 2016 and the middle of 2018. Alleged offences recorded in the records released to CBC News include sexual assault, criminal association and harassment.

« We were not surprised, » said Josh Paterson, executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association. « My main reaction was, this just makes [it] even clearer why there needs to be independent oversight for this agency. »

The BCCLA is one of three groups behind a letter to Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale asking when the government will introduce CBSA oversight legislation. The presidents of the Canadian Council for Refugees and the Canadian Association of Refugee Lawyers also signed the letter.

The CBSA’s sweeping powers include the right to search travellers, use firearms and conduct deportations. It’s the only major federal law enforcement agency without external oversight of employee conduct.

The groups’ letter also cited a recent CBC News report that said the agency had lost a USB key containing a refugee claimant’s personal information.

« We have had our own experiences of bringing very serious complaints to the CBSA, and they go nowhere, because there is no independent accountability measure, » said Janet Dench, executive director of the Canadian Council for Refugees.

The groups call in the letter for an oversight body that can « investigate complaints » and « conduct proactive assessments of CBSA policies and practices. »

Dench said the oversight agency also should be able to hear complaints from third parties, such as non-government organizations.

« Often, we are in a position to say, ‘Look, we’ve seen a pattern of disturbing behaviour, or we have heard from somebody who’s not in a position to complain themselves,' » she said.

Scott Bardsley, a spokesman for Goodale, sent CBC News a statement Thursday that was identical in some respects to a statement the department issued last month.

« CBSA officers processed 95 million travellers in 2017, and only a very small number of these interactions led to a formal complaint, » Bardsley said in an email.

Bardsley said in a statement last month that the government was « working on separate legislation to create an appropriate mechanism to review CBSA officer conduct and conditions, and handle specific complaints. »

But the government’s window to introduce legislation is closing, with a general election due this fall.

« The CBSA … does not have independent review of officer conduct, and that is a gap that definitely needs to be addressed, » Goodale told a Senate committee in 2016.

Following the recent CBC News story, Goodale said the government is preparing legislation that would create « another unit … that looks specifically at the issues of officer conduct or incident investigation.

« We continue to work at it as rapidly as we can. »



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Are shadowy agents targeting Canadians who criticize an Israeli spyware firm? – National

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John Scott-Railton rushed into the Peninsula Hotel on Fifth Avenue in New York City, behind schedule, half-soaked from a rainstorm and out of breath. He hurried through the lobby to the hotel’s five-star restaurant, the Clement, praying that the microphone hidden under his tie was still working, and that his lunch date hadn’t bailed.

He felt like a mess as he moved through the swanky hotel. He worried his whole plan was about to fall apart because of a bit of traffic on the way over.

Scott-Railton was set to meet with Michel Lambert, a wealthy entrepreneur who promised him a lucrative business opportunity — one that paid far better than his spyware-hunting job at Citizen Lab in Toronto.

But he says he knew the man he ultimately sat down with for dinner that afternoon was not a businessman named Michel Lambert. According to Scott-Railton, he was an ex-spy from Israel operating under a false name.

A man who identified himself as Michel Lambert reacts during an interview at a restaurant in New York on Thursday, Jan. 24, 2019.

AP Photo/Joseph Frederick

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Scott-Railton says he agreed to meet the man he says was a covert operative because he wanted to “turn the tables” on a shadowy operation that had targeted his Citizen Lab colleague, Bahar Abdul Razzak, a few months earlier. A supposed entrepreneur had lured Razzak to a meeting in Toronto, then grilled him about his research into NSO Group, an Israeli tech firm with software that can hack any smartphone via text message, according to Scott-Railton.


READ MORE:
Undercover spies caught fishing for anti-Israel remarks following Canadian sting

Citizen Lab has been tracking NSO Group’s phone-cracking software for years, and its research forms the basis of three major lawsuits. The plaintiffs allege that NSO’s software was used to hack their phones and spy on them because they were critical of governments in Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

“Lambert” asked Scott-Railton several questions about NSO over lunch. He also posed leading questions about potential anti-Israel bias or outside funding at Citizen Lab, an independent research facility at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs.

John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, poses for a photo in New York City on Jan. 17, 2019.

AP Photo/Kathy Willens

However, the man had little to say once Scott-Railton invited a hidden Associated Press reporter over to the table.

“I don’t have to speak with you,” said the man, whom the New York Times and Israel’s Channel 12 later identified as former Israeli security official Aharon Almog-Assouline. Almog-Assouline stormed out of the restaurant and refused to answer questions from the AP reporter.

The sting has shed light on an alleged wider plot targeting at least six critics of NSO, an Israeli cybersecurity firm that helps law enforcement access suspects’ smartphones. Three lawsuits accuse NSO of selling its phone-cracking program, Pegasus, to governments that allegedly used it to monitor journalists and activists. The lawsuits call for NSO to stop selling Pegasus to some of its most lucrative government clients, many of whom pay tens of millions of dollars for its services.

Global News has reached out to NSO Group for comment on Citizen Lab’s reports, the lawsuits against it and the alleged attempts by anonymous individuals to contact people linked to those lawsuits. NSO has not responded. However, it has previously refuted the Citizen Lab reports, rejected the claims in the lawsuits and denied any connection to those asking about the lawsuits.

Citizen Lab

Citizen Lab, which operates out of the University of Toronto, does independent research into human rights abuses online, such as government surveillance and censorship.

“Our work exposing these abuses is clearly making some people uncomfortable, and we are being targeted with underhanded, unethical tactics,” Scott-Railton told Global News.

“To us, this is a signal that we are doing something right, and why academic work is so important.”

Scott-Railton and his colleagues at U of T’s Citizen Lab have been monitoring NSO since 2016.

Citizen Lab has published over a dozen reports documenting alleged abuse of NSO’s software, Pegasus, based on digital forensics. They say NSO has been reckless with its choice of clients, by selling to governments with a history of human rights abuses.


READ MORE:
Toronto-based Citizen Lab, which exposed Israeli spy software, targeted by undercover agents

Citizen Lab alleges that NSO’s Pegasus software has been used for political purposes in several countries, including Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Overall, Citizen Lab estimates that 36 operators have used Pegasus on targets in 45 different nations, including the United States and Canada. It says six operators were linked to countries with a “history of abusing spyware to target civil society.”

NSO Group has repeatedly denied all allegations stemming from Citizen Lab’s research, and insists that its technology is only used for law enforcement purposes. The company has disputed Citizen Lab’s list of countries where it operates, and claims that the product “will not operate outside of approved countries.”

Shady operators

A recent AP investigation found that at least six individuals linked to NSO lawsuits, including Citizen Lab’s Razzak and Scott-Railton, have been targeted by undercover operatives seeking information about the cases. These shady figures invited their targets to swanky dinners to discuss lucrative job offers, then questioned them about NSO, according to the AP.

Two people targeted by undercover operatives were secretly recorded and the footage later broadcast on Israeli television, the AP reports.

“There’s somebody who’s really interested in sabotaging the case,” Mazen Masri, who is one of the alleged targets, told the Associated Press. Masri teaches at City University in London, and is advising the plaintiff’s attorney in one of the NSO lawsuits. He suggested the man was “looking for dirt and relevant information about people involved.”

WATCH BELOW: Up to 500-million Marriott customers’ data accessed in cyberattack






Citizen Lab condemned the alleged operations against Razzak and Scott-Railton in a statement last month, after Scott-Railton met with the suspected spy.

“This failed operation against two Citizen Lab researchers is a new low,” Citizen Lab director Ron Deibert wrote on Jan. 25. “We have always welcomed debate and dialogue about our work, but we condemn these sinister, underhanded activities in the strongest possible terms.”

Deibert added that he has “no evidence” that NSO Group itself is responsible for the incidents.

How NSO’s phone-hacking Pegasus spyware works

Pegasus is an extremely powerful spyware program that installs itself on a phone after the target is tricked into clicking a text-message link. It’s designed to let police covertly examine everything on a target’s phone, according to an in-depth technical analysis of the program by Lookout, a California-based cybersecurity company. The analysis was conducted in partnership with Citizen Lab.

Pegasus effectively turns the target’s phone into an open book. The spyware operator can access anything connected to the phone, and can even switch on its microphones and cameras to turn it into a remote surveillance device. The only way to avoid infection is to avoid clicking on text-message links.

This diagram shows all the systems an operator can access by infecting someone’s phone with Pegasus spyware.

Citizen Lab

“The Pegasus software is highly configurable,” the Lookout report says. “Depending on the country of use and feature sets purchased by the user of the spyware, the surveillance capabilities include remotely accessing text messages, iMessages, calls, emails, logs, and more from apps including Gmail, Facebook, Skype, WhatsApp, Viber, Facetime, Calendar, Line, Mail.Ru, WeChat, Surespot, Tango, Telegram, and others.”

Citizen Lab and Lookout worked with Apple in 2016 to help it fix an iOS vulnerability that Pegasus appeared to exploit. Citizen Lab says it discovered Pegasus exploiting the vulnerability on a phone belonging to Ahmed Mansoor, a prominent human rights activist in the United Arab Emirates. NSO continued to sell the product to the UAE government long after Apple said it fixed the patch, the New York Times reports.


READ MORE:
iPhone security update prompted by spyware discovery

NSO Group says the tool has helped foil terror plots in Europe, allegedly contributed to the capture of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman and led to the arrest of many dangerous criminals and child sex traffickers.

NSO Group has not publicly revealed the names of its current clients. However, its software is not unique. Several companies, including Italy’s Hacking Team and Germany’s FinFisher, have developed technology to help law enforcement crack suspects’ phones.

Many countries, including Canada, have legal provisions that allow for “lawful interception” of certain communications in serious criminal cases. Canadian police need a warrant or a judge’s authorization to use such extreme measures, according to the Department of Justice.

WATCH BELOW: What to do if your email gets hacked






However, Citizen Lab says the Pegasus software has been deployed against unwarranted political targets, such as journalists and activists.

Amnesty International has also accused NSO Group of releasing its technology to an entity that targeted one of Amnesty’s staffers. The human rights group has called for Israel to revoke NSO Group’s export licence, which would effectively kill all of its contracts with foreign governments.

What is NSO Group?

NSO Group is an Israeli cybersecurity firm that specializes in hacking smartphones. Its headquarters are in Luxembourg and its offices are in Herzelia, near Tel Aviv in Israel. The company has between 500 and 1,000 employees, according to its LinkedIn page.

The group claims on its website that its technology is used “exclusively by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight crime and terror.”

NSO Group’s co-founders, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, re-acquired a majority ownership stake in the company on Thursday, in a deal that reportedly valued the company at US$1 billion. Francisco Partners, a U.S.-based private equity firm that previously owned 70 per cent of the company, announced the sale in a news release.

NSO Group sells licences to its software through an export licence approved by the Israeli government. It has dozens of licensed customers and earned $250 million in revenue last year, Francisco Partners said.

Hulio and Lavie founded NSO Group in 2010 and have been with the company ever since, serving as its CEO and director, respectively.

WATCH BELOW: Canadian cybersecurity officials outline plans to protect 2019 election






NSO Group has denied all allegations that suggest its software has been used improperly. It insists its product is meant to be used exclusively to prevent crime and terrorism.

“Any use of our technology that is counter to that purpose is a violation of our policies, legal contracts, and the values that we stand for as a company,” NSO Group said in a written statement to Amnesty International last August. The statement was issued after Amnesty claimed one of its members was spied on using NSO software.

NSO Group has signed several lucrative contracts with foreign governments, including multi-million-dollar deals with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to reports in the New York Times and Haaretz, an Israeli daily newspaper.

Khashoggi friend allegedly hacked

One of the three lawsuits against NSO was filed in Israel on behalf of Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, a permanent resident of Canada living near Montreal. Abdulaziz alleges that Pegasus software was used to monitor his conversations with Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year, shortly before Khashoggi was murdered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul.

WATCH BELOW: Omar Abdulaziz says he was targeted by Saudi Arabia






Edward Snowden, the former NSA contractor-turned whistleblower, has also suggested that Abdulaziz’s hacked phone may have contributed to the death of Khashoggi, citing an analysis by Citizen Lab.

“The reality is that they bugged one of his few friends and contacts using software created by an Israeli company,” Snowden told an audience in Tel Aviv via video link last November.

Citizen Lab published a report about Abdulaziz’s hacked phone on Oct. 1, one day before Khashoggi was killed. The Citizen Lab researchers concluded with “high confidence” that the breach was caused by NSO’s Pegasus spyware.


READ MORE:
Saudi Arabia used controversial spyware to monitor Canada-based political refugee: report

NSO Group disputed some details in Abdulaziz’s lawsuit in a written statement to the Times of Israel in December. The company said the lawsuit “appears to be based on a collection of press clippings that have been generated for the sole purpose of creating news headlines and do not reflect the reality of NSO’s work.”

NSO Group CEO Shulev Hulio says the company looked into the allegations and concluded that its software was not involved in Khashoggi’s murder.


READ MORE:
Jamal Khashoggi’s friend sues Israeli surveillance company, saying it helped track journalist

“Khashoggi was not targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection,” he told Yedioth Ahronoth, a Hebrew-language daily, in an interview last month. The interview was translated by Yedioth Ahronoth’s English-language sister site, Ynetnews.

He added that the company immediately sanctions any customer that is found to be using its software for anything other than saving lives and thwarting crime or terrorism.

WATCH BELOW: What we know about Khashoggi’s murder






NSO has also denied any connection to the individuals who contacted Abdulaziz’s lawyers or Scott-Railton and Razzak at Citizen Lab.

Scott-Railton says the whole situation is shining some much-needed light on the highly secretive and extremely lucrative business of military-grade spyware.

“The problem is, this industry operates in the shadows, and not everything that happens there is just about catching bad guys,” he said.

“Sending private spies to go after academics is a tactic you might use if you have something to hide.”

With files from The Associated Press and Reuters

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Anglais8 minutes ago

Canadian captured in Syria admits to role in gruesome ISIS execution videos

Actualités38 minutes ago

Andrew Scheer dans une manifestation pour les oléoducs | STEPHANIE TAYLOR

Opinions48 minutes ago

Le Québec à la traîne en agriculture artisanale

Anglais1 heure ago

Critics call for ‘robust’ oversight of CBSA following CBC reports on staff misconduct

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Collecte des déchets: les Longueuillois devront changer leurs habitudes | KATHLEEN LÉVESQUE

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Lou-Adriane Cassidy: des morts, une naissance ***1/2 | CHARLES-ÉRIC BLAIS-POULIN

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Les signes religieux | Le Devoir

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L’élan se poursuit sur les marchés | Agence France-Presse, La Presse canadienne

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Are shadowy agents targeting Canadians who criticize an Israeli spyware firm? – National

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Hells Angels: Cazzetta prêt à payer des impôts… mais pas trop | DANIEL RENAUD

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Navrant, navrant! | Le Devoir

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In-bounds avalanche buries 2 people at Castle Mountain Resort

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L’opposition libérale accuse la CAQ de manquer de transparence

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L’immobilier se normalise | Le Devoir

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Le pétrole au plus haut depuis trois mois

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Peel Police charge father of dead girl, 11, with first-degree murder

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Pomegranate-Parsley Tabbouleh

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Arctic: survivre à l'Arctique ***1/2

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Rencontre entre Kim et Trump, acte II

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Edmonton’s funicular was a popular river valley ride in its first year: report – Edmonton

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Body found after downtown Lethbridge apartment building fire, police investigating – Lethbridge

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Gluten-Free Muffins

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27 CP Rail cars derail near Lake Louise, Alta.

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Man facing eviction from family home on Toronto Islands gets reprieve — for now

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This B.C. woman’s recipe is one of the most popular of all time — and the story behind it is bananas

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We Try Kin Euphorics and How to REALLY Get the Glow | Healthyish

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Redécouvrir les plaisirs de la neige grâce aux sports d’hiver | CHRISTIAN GEISER

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Trudeau government would reject Jason Kenney, taxpayers group in carbon tax court fight

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Ontario Tories argue Trudeau’s carbon plan is ‘unconstitutional’

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3 fois par jour – Desserts: le casse-tête sucré de Marilou | Sophie Ouimet

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Le chanteur R. Kelly accusé de pédophilie dans un documentaire

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Renaud Capuçon, rédacteur en chef du Figaroscope

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Paris : chez Cécile Roederer co-fondatrice de Smallable

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100 years later, Montreal’s Black Watch regiment returns to Wallers, France

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Province’s push for private funding, additional stops puts Scarborough subway at risk of delays

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A photo taken on Toronto’s Corso Italia 49 years ago became a family legend. No one saw it — until now

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This couple shares a 335-square-foot micro condo on Queen St. — and loves it

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Le fils aîné de Tony Accurso meurt dans une embardée | Daniel Renaud et Vincent Larouche

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Le Michelin salue le dynamisme de la gastronomie française

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quel avenir pour le Carré des Horlogers?

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