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The Pegasus spyware has been linked to the deaths of two journalists in a week, with the latest allegations coming via a lawsuit against the spyware's creator, NSO Group.
The NSO Group, an Israel-based company that specializes in spyware and iPhone hacking tools, created the Pegasus spyware and has been accused of selling it to government agencies. Pegasus spyware has long been linked to attacks targeting political dissidents, rights activists and journalists. The attacks often begin as classic phishing schemes, with a malicious text message, website or email. But they will ultimately infiltrate the target's smartphone -- regardless of whether it is an Android phone or iPhone -- and gain access to whatever information the attacker chooses, including app, microphone and camera data.
On Sunday, attorneys for Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist based in Montreal, filed a civil lawsuit against the NSO Group. The lawsuit claimed the Pegasus Mobile spyware allowed the Saudi government to steal communication between Abdulaziz and assassinated Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and that this information contributed to the decision to murder Khashoggi. The Saudi government has denied being involved with Khashoggi's death, despite suspicious circumstances.
Abdulaziz released to CNN some 400 WhatsApp messages he exchanged in conversations with Khashoggi. The messages concerned plans between the two men to form an "electronic army" in an effort to mobilize the youth of Saudi Arabia against the government. In messages from early August, the two discussed that Saudi government officials were aware of the project. Khashoggi was killed less than two months later.
NSO Group claimed it sells its software to governments "for the purposes of fighting terrorism and investigating crimes," and it said it cannot be held liable for how the software is ultimately used by those governments. But this lawsuit against NSO Group was the latest to allege the company has been aiding governments to spy on individuals without just cause, including lawsuits in the United Arab Emirates and Mexico.
NSO Group was founded in 2010 and acquired by San Francisco-based private equity firm Francisco Partners in 2014 for $110 million. Francisco Partners owns several cybersecurity vendors, including SonicWall, WatchGuard and Sectigo, formerly Comodo Certificate Authority.
The Citizen Lab, a research lab at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, has been studying the use of Pegasus spyware and found suspected infections in 45 countries. In the latest report released last week, the Citizen Lab found that, two days after the shooting death of Javier Valdez Cárdenas, journalist and founder of Mexican newspaper Rio Doce, Pegasus spyware attacks targeted two other journalists at the same newspaper.
The report went on to say the NSO Group spyware was being used to target journalists and political activists in Mexico, and it found 24 individuals who were targeted using the spyware, including journalists investigating cartels, lawyers, government officials and more.