Human Rights Watch said Wednesday that one of its senior staff members was targeted last year with spyware designed by the Israeli hacker-for hire company NSO Group.
The New York-based rights group said the software was used against Lama Fakih, the director of its Beirut office who also oversees its crisis response in several countries, including Syria, Myanmar, Israel and the Palestinian territories, Ethiopia, Afghanistan, and the United States.
NSO Group has been mired in controversy following revelations its spyware was used in several countries against journalists, activists and even U.S. diplomats. The U.S. barred the firm from accessing American technology last year, saying its tools have been used by repressive regimes, and Facebook and Apple have filed lawsuits against NSO over hacks against their products.
NSO Group does not disclose its clients but says it has safeguards in place to ensure its products are only used to target suspected criminals and terrorists. It says it does not have access to the intelligence its clients gather.
Its Pegasus spyware grants full access to a person’s phone, including photos, emails and real-time communications. The targeted person does not have to take any action, such as clicking a link, and would not be able to detect the breach without a sophisticated technical analysis.
NSO Group issued a statement expressing support for an “international regulatory structure” for cyber intelligence tools, but said any calls to suspend their use until one is established would benefit criminals who evade other forms of surveillance. It did not directly address the hacking reported by Human Rights Watch.
Human Rights Watch said Fakih, a dual U.S. and Lebanese citizen, was targeted on five occasions between April and August. Apple informed her of the breach on Nov. 24, and forensic analysis by Human Rights Watch confirmed the presence of the software, the group said.
“It is no accident that governments are using spyware to target activists and journalists, the very people who uncover their abusive practices,” Fakih said. “They seem to believe that by doing so, they can consolidate power, muzzle dissent, and protect their manipulation of facts.”