Electronic surveillance of actions by Palestinian human rights organisations run by the Palestinian NGO Forum (PNF) has been traced to Pegasus, a spying network developed by a private company based in Israel, human rights organisations have revealed.
The organisations, including Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR), have identified a number of mobile phones used by the PNF, both in offices and in their underground car parks. They believe the phones were infected with Pegasus, a back-door surveillance network created by Orbis Business Intelligence in 2011 and sold by Orbis to about 200 intelligence agencies worldwide, including the Israeli military.
Pegasus has been used as part of a number of projects, including a surveillance campaign by the Israeli military to document alleged journalists reporting on Gaza’s Hamas rulers. The apparent use of Pegasus in the PNF case raises further concerns over alleged human rights abuses by Israeli military forces.
“Phones on circulation, among workers and activists, are linked with the Orbis spyware,” said Samah Salaime from PCHR.
Salaime said the network was operating from a network of car parks in the City of Ramallah, the de facto capital of Palestinian Authority (PA) in the occupied West Bank. Activists use these to organise demonstrations against Israel.
“The PNF, which is part of the Palestinian Authority, has plenty of spies on the ground, who are helping the Israeli occupation to try to sabotage Palestinian democracy and to stop human rights violations against the Palestinians,” Salaime said.
The revelation of the Pegasus activity at the NGO forum has been confirmed by the Swedish human rights organisation, Sveriges Riksdag (SRV), and Amnesty International, which also named an Israeli-owned security firm, Equivel. Equivel is a company that provides information on protesters and protesters’ links with some in the security and intelligence world to police forces worldwide.
The mobile phones used by PNF staff were reportedly infected by Pegasus between February and April, with the installation of computer spies and the monitoring of phone calls and internet use by suspects inside Israel and abroad.
PNF staff were given CDs by Equivel containing a large amount of information about its targets, said PCHR. “Since then, the staff have been either under surveillance or under threat of the information being leaked,” said Salaime.
“Arrests and searches and abuse of power have taken place and some of the investigations are ongoing,” she said.
HRW said a data broker known as Pegasus Security Consulting was responsible for the successful installation of the spyware on the Palestine Palestine Coalition (PPC), a small leftwing collective in the West Bank.
Protesters in the West Bank had identified Pegasus as a legitimate security company after it was used by the police to monitor them in occupied East Jerusalem and in a demonstration against settler violence at a religious compound in Jerusalem, HRW said.
“This expansion is the most tangible evidence so far that Israel is systematically targeting Palestinians as part of its illegal settlement expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem,” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.
“It is crucial for anyone in contact with Palestinians to know that, to evade scrutiny by the Israeli security services, groups and individuals are using foreign firms to build elaborate back-doors to manipulate communications with Palestinians.”
As well as allowing the extraction of content and metadata, the Pegasus programme can take over the access point for a computer or phone, enabling the creation of a back door for collecting data, HRW said. “Records that are generated through the use of these backdoors should be made available to law enforcement officials, and information and action taken against Pegasus’s owners and suppliers,” Whitson said.
HRW said that the Israeli-Israeli arms trade, including Pegasus, which profited from the US arms embargo against Iran, had proved vital in Israel’s attempts to limit Palestinian dissent.
The organisation was told by Pegasus it does not support Israeli forces and does not have links to any intelligence community, according to HRW. But the operation to take over access points appeared to be the work of the Israeli secret service, known as Shabak, or Shabak, HRW said.
A spokesman for Pegasus told the Guardian: “Pegasus also does not condone cyber-attacks and the use of information theft. The company is aware of the reputational issues surrounding Pegasus and has a long history of transparency in all its operations.”