Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Citizen have reported that Iphones of around 37 journalists belonging to Government of Qatar owned News Channels (Aljazeera and Alarabi) have been hacked through a cyber attack conducted by the Governments of UAE and Saudia Arabia.
Citizen Lab said it traced malware that infected the personal phones of 37 journalists, producers, anchors and executives at Al-Jazeera back to the Israel-based NSO Group, which has been widely condemned for selling spyware to repressive governments.
Toronto based researchers found out that this was an advanced form of attack that was not done via clicking on the link, but it was probed through imessages on their iphones.
The attack has directly targeted the journalists of the Qatari news agency Aljazeera, citizen lab cited that this could have caused because of the diplomatic tensions between Qatar- UAE and Saudi Arabia. Tensions grew after Aljazeera took a strong stance against UAE and Saudi Arabia after the Arab Spring that cause various Middle Eastern governments to topple.
The attack allowed the Israel-based NSO Group hackers to download data from the journalist phones, spy through the camera and listen to their microphone.
Citizen Lab said it had shared its findings with Apple, and that the exploit used to monitor the journalists’ phones didn’t appear to work on devices that were updated to iOS version 14 and above. Apple in respond said that it was aware of the Citizen Lab report and said the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 14, “delivered new protections against these kinds of attacks.” Apple said that the Israel-based NSO Group didn’t target all iphones but only sought special target names given to them by the foreign governments. Apple has recognized the report but hasn’t yet verified it.
Citizen Lab, which has been tracking NSO spyware for four years, tied the attacks “with medium confidence” to Emirati and Saudi governments, based on their past targeting of dissidents at home and abroad with the same spyware. The two countries are embroiled in a bitter geopolitical dispute with Qatar in which hacking and cyber surveillance have increasingly become favored tools.
In 2017, Saudi Arab and UAE called for a ban on Aljazeera, citing that the news agency was supporting the extremist groups in middle eat which the Al Jazeera denied. This new development shows the feud is still on going.
UAE and Saudi Arab refused to comment on the issue.
The NSO group, on the other hand said that it thinks the report is false and it can not comment on a report they haven’t seen. They reiterated that their firm only provided technology for the sole purpose of enabling “governmental law enforcement agencies to tackle serious organized crime and counterterrorism.” Nevertheless, it added, “when we receive credible evidence of misuse … we take all necessary steps in accordance with our product misuse investigation procedure in order to review the allegations.” NSO does not identify its customers.
Recently, NSO group’s spyware was also found to be involved in the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 and whose body has never been found.