Al Jazeera Journalists Hacked Via Israeli NSO Group Spyware

Our world is increasingly dependent on cyberspace. Organizations and individuals seeking to cause chaos or steal information are developing and using cyber capabilities to do just that. Recently, 36 journalists associated with Al Jazeera were hacked by an Israeli spy firm taking advantage of an iPhone software flaw. According to BBC, TV anchors, executives, and others were targeted by the spyware group.

An Al Jazeera investigative journalist asked Citizen Lab months ago to look into the possibility of a cyber-attack on the news outlet’s journalists. Citizen Lab observed all activity on one journalist’s phone and noticed in July 2020 that his phone opened a website associated with NSO Group’s Pegasus virus software, claims BBC. The Israeli NSO Group denies the accusations and claims there is no evidence.

BBC writes that an NSO Group spokesman says the firm only offers its software to governments for security purposes and does not use the software itself. However, this is not the first time that NSO Group has been connected to spyware abuses around the globe, claims Al Jazeera. To this end, a Citizen Lab report claims that it is very likely that Al Jazeera journalists were spied on by hackers affiliated with the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

The Israeli NSO Group is using a zero-click approach in their spyware. This method infiltrates a phone without being detected and leaves little noticeable traces of a hack, claims the Guardian. For example, in 2019, WhatsApp users were targeted by spyware that showed they had a missed voice call. WhatsApp recognized the threat and remedied the issue. In this hack on Al Jazeera journalists, NSO Group spyware could record audio, take pictures, track location, and steal passwords and information on the infected devices, claims one of the hacked Al Jazeera journalists. Al Jazeera claims some journalists were blackmailed by photos stolen from their devices that were posted online.

According to BBC, the spyware software works on iPhones running on at least iOS 13.5.1. Many iPhones using the iOS 13 software may have been compromised, claims Citizen Lab. Because of this, cyber-security researchers agree that iPhone users should update to the latest version of iOS 14 as this version seems to lack the flaw that would allow the device to be hacked. Apple did not know about the rift in its software until recently, but a spokesman for the company says that iOS 14 software will help in preventing such attacks in the future. BBC claims this spokesman goes on to say that it is imperative that iPhone users keep up-to-date with new software versions to secure information stored on their devices.

Qatari-based media network Al Jazeera was targeted because of tensions in the Gulf region, specifically between Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Qatar, claims the Guardian. Qatar is accused of providing safety to criminals from the three countries and supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which these countries despise. In recent years, Qatar has lost diplomatic, trade, and travel agreements with these countries and has been asked to close Al Jazeera, among other demands, says Al Jazeera. Al Jazeera’s investigative reporting of sensitive topics makes it disliked by governments in the region and susceptible to criticism and threats.

Individuals, companies, and governments around the world are becoming more dependent on technology. Personal identification data, military files, and financial information are all stored in online databases. Breaches in cybersecurity result in loss of information, financial costs, disturbances in infrastructure, and chaos. News outlets are no exception to the threat of cyber-attacks. Journalists might be even greater targets because they delve into sensitive topics in unstable or oppressive regions, including women’s rights and political issues. This Israeli spy firm attack piggybacks on the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi government a few years ago. In 2018, at the behest of the Saudi government, NSO Group used spyware on the phone of a man who was communicating with Khashoggi, says Al Jazeera. Clearly, human rights, and lives of journalists, and accurate news reporting are at risk.

Hackers are finding more unnoticeable and untraceable ways to gain access to important information, like through these zero-click attacks. These advanced hacks emphasize the importance of creating and implementing effective cyber-security policies. Clearly, current strategies are not working to prevent and deter cyber-crimes or protect people from illegal surveillance practices. The sharing of information and resources among countries is imperative in battling future cyber-attacks. Small hacks now can lead to large-scale cyber-attacks in the future, and individuals, companies, and governments around the world must be vigilant and prepared.