Pegasus spy software used to hack the iPhone of the US State Department

At least nine U.S. State Department employees saw that unknown assailants hacked their iPhone using Pegasus spy software from the NSO group based in Israel. The attacks took place over several months, Reuters reported on Friday.

Reuters said the hacks had infiltrated iPhones belonging to U.S. officials based in Uganda or others working on issues concerning that East African country.

The intrusions are the most significant hacks of American officials through the spy software of the NSO, although others have probably been tried, reports Reuters. However, it was not possible to determine who initiated the latest cyber attacks.

The NSO said it planned to conduct an investigation

For its part, the NSO group said on Thursday that there were no indications that its tools had been used. However, the group said it had canceled the relevant accounts and planned an investigation.

“If our investigation shows that these actions really happened with the tools of the NSO, such a user will be permanently terminated and legal actions will be initiated,” said the spokesman of the NSO. The NSO will “cooperate with all relevant state bodies and present the complete information we will have,” they added.

It has long been the position of the NSO to sell its products only to clients of state law enforcement agencies and intelligence services. It is said to be doing so to help them monitor security threats. The NSO denied any direct involvement in surveillance operations.

Officials at the Ugandan embassy in Washington, DC, did not comment, and an Apple spokesman declined to comment, Reuters said.

Also refusing to comment on the hacks, a State Department spokesman pointed to a recent decision by the Ministry of Trade to add the NSO to the entity list. This makes it difficult for American companies to work with the group.

The NSO Group and another spyware maker were “added to the list of entities based on a decision to develop and deliver spyware to foreign governments that used this tool to maliciously target government officials, journalists, business people, activists, academics and embassy workers.” “The Ministry of Trade announced in November.

It is not difficult to identify

NSO software can capture encrypted messages, photos and other sensitive information from infected phones. It can also turn phones into recording devices, Reuters notes.

The warning sent by Apple to users with infected iPhones did not name the creator of the spyware used in the hacking. Victims reported by Apple could be identified as the U.S. government because they linked email addresses ending in “” with their Apple IDs.

Spyware has infected the phones of these victims and other targets in several countries through the same vulnerability in graphics processing that Apple did not address until September, sources told Reuters.

Since February or earlier, the shortcoming has allowed some NSO users to take control of iPhones by sending invisible iMessage requests to the device, researchers investigating the situation said.

A successful hack did not require the awareness or contribution of the victims. This would simply allow the installation of Pegasus spyware.

Apple’s statement that it will inform the victims came out on the day it sued the NSO Group last week. In the lawsuit, she accused the group of helping its users break into iOS.

The NSO said its technology inhibits terrorism. The group said it had set up controls to stop or reduce spying on innocent targets. His system cannot infect phones with phone numbers that start with the country code +1, for example. In the case of Uganda, the target officials used foreign telephone numbers.

The Biden administration’s response

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior Biden administration official said the threat to U.S. personnel in other countries was the reason the administration confronted organizations like the NSO and continued international communication on the restrictions on espionage.

The official referred to “systemic abuse” involving Pegasus spyware in various countries.

The most famous past clients of the NSO group are Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.

The NSO is closely associated with the Israeli defense and intelligence communities. The Israeli Ministry of Defense must approve export licenses for the international sale of the group’s technology.

The Israeli embassy in Washington said in a statement that targeting US officials was a major violation of its rules.

“Cyber ​​products like the one mentioned are under control and are allowed to be exported to governments only for purposes related to the fight against terrorism and serious crimes,” said the embassy spokesman. “The licensing provisions are very clear and if these claims are true, it is a serious violation of these provisions.”

Source: Reuters

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