American diplomats' iPhones reportedly compromised by NSO Group intrusion software

Reuters claims nine State Department employees outside the US had their devices hacked

The Apple iPhones of at least nine US State Department officials were compromised by an unidentified entity using NSO Group's Pegasus spyware, according to a report published Friday by Reuters.

NSO Group in an email to The Register said it has blocked an unnamed customers' access to its system upon receiving an inquiry about the incident but has yet to confirm whether its software was involved.

"Once the inquiry was received, and before any investigation under our compliance policy, we have decided to immediately terminate relevant customers’ access to the system, due to the severity of the allegations," an NSO spokesperson told The Register in an email. "To this point, we haven’t received any information nor the phone numbers, nor any indication that NSO’s tools were used in this case."

The Israel-based company, recently sanctioned by the US for allegedly offering its intrusion software to repressive regimes and sued by both Apple and Meta's (Facebook's) WhatsApp for allegedly supporting the hacking their customers, says that it will cooperate with any relevant government authority and pass on what it learns from its investigation of the incident.

The spyware company insisted it is unaware of the targets designated by customers using its software.

"To clarify, the installation of our software by the customer occurs via phone numbers. As stated before, NSO’s technologies are blocked from working on US (+1) numbers," NSO's spokesperson said. "Once the software is sold to the licensed customer, NSO has no way to know who the targets of the customers are, as such, we were not and could not have been aware of this case."

According to Reuters, affected State Department personnel were based in Uganda or were focused on matters related to that country and so had phone numbers with a foreign country prefix rather than the US prefix.

On November 23rd, when Apple announced its lawsuit against the NSO Group, the iPhone maker also said that it will notify iPhone customers targeted by state-sponsored hacking. That same day, Norbert Mao, a lawyer and President of the Democratic Party in Uganda, posted on Twitter that he'd received an Apple threat notification.

In June, the Washington Post reported that NSO's Pegasus software was implicated in the attempted or successful hacking of 37 phones belonging to journalists and rights advocates, including two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The report said the findings undermined NSO Group's claims that its software was only licensed for fighting terrorists and for law enforcement.

That same month, the NSO Group published its 2021 Transparency and Responsibility Report [PDF], in which the company insists its software is used exclusively for use against groups that have few allies like terrorists, criminals, and pedophiles.

"Myth: Pegasus is a mass surveillance tool," the report says. "Fact: Data is collected only from individual, pre-identified suspected criminals and terrorists."

Numerous reports from cybersecurity research and human rights groups have contradicted that assertion, to say nothing of UN, EU, and US claims about the company.

A US State Department spokesperson declined The Register's request to confirm the Reuters report but said the State Department takes its responsibility to safeguard its information seriously. We were also told that the Biden-Harris Administration is working to limit the use of digital tools of repression.

NSO Group maintains that it has turned away $300m in revenue to date based on unresolved human rights concerns and that, between May 2020 and April 2021, it rejected 15 per cent of new business opportunities for the same reason.

The company, which does not name its customers in its Transparency and Responsibility Report but includes numerous unattributed endorsement quotations about its products, has not yet published documents that allow its claims to be verified. ®

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