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News Agencies Say Reporters, Activists Targeted by Spyware

FILE - Human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor shows Associated Press journalists a screenshot of a spoof text message he received in Ajman, United Arab Emirates, Aug. 25, 2016. Mansoor was recently targeted by spyware that can hack into Apple's iPhone.
News Agencies Say Reporters, Activists Targeted by Spyware
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News reporters and media groups are upset over reports that governments may have hacked their mobile phones.

A kind of software known as “spyware” may have been used to control the cameras and microphones of as many as 50,000 people around the world.

Amnesty International and a French organization for reporters called Forbidden Stories found that over 1,000 of those phone numbers belong to journalists, political activists, government leaders and dissidents. Dissidents are people who left their home countries for expressing critical opinions of their governments.

The spyware comes from a computer security group based in Israel known as NSO Group. The software is called Pegasus.

NSO said it only sells its Pegasus software to lawful government agencies for use against terrorists and criminals. It says targets include drug dealers and leaders of criminal groups, or gangs.

Forbidden Stories sent its report about the hacked phones to 16 news organizations around the world. The organizations connected over 1,000 phone numbers with their owners.

The owners included journalists who work for The Associated Press, Reuters, The Washington Post, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Le Monde and The Financial Times.

On Monday, the head of the European Commission called using spyware against reporters “completely unacceptable” if the reports are confirmed.

Ursula von der Leyen continued, saying: “Freedom of media…is one of the core values of the EU.”

NSO denied the reporting of Forbidden Stories, calling the news “false allegations.”

Amnesty International said its research showed the Pegasus software was on the phone belonging to the woman Jamal Khashoggi was planning to marry. Khashoggi was a Washington Post writer killed while inside the diplomatic offices of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018.

The Washington Post said Pegasus was on 37 of its phones. The Guardian, a British newspaper, said it identified 15 of its phones that were hacked.

Of the 50,000 phone numbers, 15,000 are based in Mexico. Past investigations showed NSO spyware has been used in Mexico and the Middle East.

Another reporter whose phone was hacked was later killed. Cecilio Pineda Birto reported about crime in Mexico. He was killed in 2017 after a report about local politicians.

Lauren Easton is the director of media relations for the Associated Press (AP). She said the company is “deeply troubled” to know that two AP reporters, and many other journalists, may have been spied on.

Expert researchers in computer security discovered in 2016 that many people who worked for news organizations were spied on, with the activity linked to NSO.

NSO is not the only business that makes spyware. But it has gotten a lot of attention. Several legal cases targeting NSO’s business have been brought in Israel and Cyprus. Because of the attention, NSO recently produced a report saying it rejected over $300 million in business because of its human rights “processes.”

A well-known computer security expert, however, criticized NSO’s report. Eva Galperin is the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. She said: “If this report was printed, it would not be worth the paper it was printed on.”

I’m Dan Friedell.

Dan Friedell adapted this story for Learning English based on reports by The Associated Press and Reuters. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

What would you think if your country were spying on journalists and critics of its government? Tell us in the Comments Section and visit our Facebook page.


Words in This Story

hack, hacker –n. to secretly get into a computer system to get information or cause damage; a person who hacks computers

spyware – n. computer software that secretly records information about the way you use a computer

core – adj. the central part of something

allegation – n. a statement saying that someone has done something wrong or illegal