Watchdogs, experts call on gov’t to trace Pegasus hacking incidents

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AMMAN — Journalist Suhair Jaradat never suspected she would be among dozens of Jordanians whose mobile phones were hacked by Pegasus, the highly controversial spyware designed and sold by Israeli spyware company NSO Group. Last week, Jordan News reported that Dublin-based Frontline Defenders, in collaboration with University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, published a report about a digital forensic investigation which uncovered Pegasus spyware on the mobile devices of four Jordanian human rights defenders, including a women’s rights activist, a lawyer, and a journalist. اضافة اعلان

Jaradat told Jordan News that when her WhatsApp application began sending strange messages to her contacts, she became suspicious and informed the authorities. It was later confirmed by technical and examination reports that her mobile phone was hacked seven times between February and December 2021.

While government authorities never contacted Jaradat, which made her angry, the Open Source Association, in cooperation with Frontline Defenders, backed up her mobile data, conducted a forensic examination, and found technical evidence indicating that the hack was performed using spyware.

The forensic examination indicated her mobile phone was hacked seven times: four times by “zero click” attacks, once through her SMS messaging service, and twice via WhatsApp.

She said the government should work to prevent such intrusions and follow up on any entity which threatens the security and privacy of Jordanian citizens.

Executive Director of the Jordanian Open Source Association Issa Mahasneh told Jordan News that the technical examination of the hacked devices is not able to determine the source of the hack. The association also issued a statement condemning these practices.

Mahasneh expressed hope that government bodies will pay more attention to this matter, adding that the National Cyber Security Center’s denial of the Frontline Defenders report was not enough.

The National Cyber Security Center has denied allegations that agencies associated with the Jordanian government have targeted the cell phones of Jordanian citizens using the Pegasus spyware.

In a statement issued on Tuesday, the center stressed that these allegations are baseless and that Jordan has not cooperated with any agents with the aim of spying on citizens’ phones or calls.

State Minister for Media Affairs and spokesperson of the government Faisal Al-Shboul told Jordan News that “we cannot fight such violations without the cooperation of the people who have been hacked”, stressing that “we will make the necessary effort through the National Center for Cyber Security and the Cybercrime Unit to prevent these practices.”

A previous report prepared by Frontline Defenders and Citizen Lab last January indicated that several Jordanian public figures and activists were also hacked through the Pegasus spyware, including  MP Mustafa Hamarneh, lawyer Hala Ahed, social media activist Dima Alam Farraj, and former MP Dima Tahboub.

Nidal Mansour, the Executive Director of the Center for Defending  Freedom of Journalists, told Jordan News that “we are not a technical body to determine whether the breach occurred or not, but we call on the government to investigate independently and to announce its results with the participation of independent experts.”

Mansour stressed that the government must prove whether breaches occurred or not and that the issue is not limited to hacking the phones of journalists, but also the potential hacking of other Jordanian citizens. “The government must take measures to protect the rights of Jordanians, preserve their privacy, and (find out) who is behind these practices,” he said.

Chairman of the National Center for Human Rights Rahil Gharaibeh told Jordan News that the center has called for verifying any allegations related to the penetration of communication devices and urged the implementation of the necessary legal and technical measures to put an end to it. Gharaibeh said that the center had issued a statement and submitted a complaint on behalf of persons whose devices had been hacked.

He added that international human rights standards guarantee the right to private life, which includes the protection of correspondence and communications conducted through the means of digital and online communication.

Mohammed Al-Maskati, a digital consultant and security researcher for Frontline Defenders based in Bahrain, told Jordan News that the organization identified two Pegasus operators in Jordan and believes they are likely agencies of the Jordanian government.

The joint report by Frontline Defenders and Citizen Lab identified two hacker groups operating under the nicknames “Mansaf” and “Black Iris”.

 Al-Maskati added that at least two of the four targets were hacked by Pegasus operators primarily focused on Jordan, based on SMS messages containing Pegasus links that map to a cluster of domain names focusing on Jordanian themes.

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