NSO Group, a spy company linked to a ‘new’ Maltese citizen, accused of hacking the mobile phones of more than 180 journalists around the world, has threatened to sue journalists for defamation for continuing to expose its practices.
The Israeli firm specializes in the manufacture and distribution of spyware called ‘Pegasus’ that is sold to governments worldwide.
The firm is believed to have collaborated with Ability Inc, which is owned by Anatoly Hurgin, a Russian/Israeli businessman who obtained Maltese Citizenship through the cash-for-passports scheme.
Forbidden Stories has now reported that at least 180 journalists globally had been selected as targets by 10 clients in 20 countries. This revelation came after a leak of more than 50,000 files from NSO Group.
Those targeted included Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova and assassinated Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
In the case of Khashoggi, the leaked data suggested that the Saudi government was using Pegasus to try and monitor the people close to him, before and even after his murder.
The Guardian reported that this could have been to keep tabs on how the investigation in Turkey was going. They even selected Istanbul’s chief prosecutor as a target for the software.
Following the publication of the leak, NSO threatened to sue those reporting, adding that the reports are “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.” They added that they “firmly deny the false allegations in the report” and state the technology had no link to the murder of Khashoggi.
NSO Group have found themselves in the media several times in recent years, following accusations their software has been used to target journalists, activists, and members of civil society.
In January 2020, Human Rights Organization Amnesty International demanded that Israel rein in the company. They took the case to court, sounding the alarm that it was being used to target journalists and for other malicious purposes.
“The legal action is being brought by approximately 30 members and supporters of Amnesty International Israel and others from the human rights community. The action is supported by Amnesty International as part of a joint project with New York University (NYU) School of Law’s Bernstein Institute for Human Rights and Global Justice Clinic”, Amnesty International said in a statement.
Then in December, it was reported that dozens of journalists had been allegedly hacked with NSO’s software.
Some 36 Al Jazeera reporters were said to have been hacked, according to a report from Toronto-based Citizen Lab. This included journalists, anchors, producers, executives, and a journalist at London-based Al Araby TV.
As well as journalists, the software which enables customers to remotely surveil and exploit devices, Citizen Lab reported it also targeted Ahmed Mansoor, dozens of members of civil society in Mexico, and political dissidents targeted by Saudi Arabia.
NSO Group’s link to Malta
NSO Group is owned by Israeli citizens Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie. Based just outside of Tel Aviv, it employs a staff numbering hundreds, in multiple jurisdictions.
The company was described by Hurgin as “one of the best companies in the field” and indicated that they had worked together. His company, Ability Inc handled the network side of operations and NSO was responsible for depositing malware onto devices.
Hurgin, a Russian and Israeli citizen, acquired Maltese citizenship via passport concessionaires Henley and Partners between 2015 and 2016.
In 2017, Hugin’s company was under investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly lying about the state of its finances. It was also almost delisted by NASDAQ, had private lawsuits filed against it, and saw a mass exodus of board staff.
The SEC claims they lied for years about clients, accounts, and the scope of their software.
Then in 2019, Hurgin and others employed by Ability Inc were arrested and taken into custody on suspicion of breaking the law “on a significant scale.” Israeli authorities believed they were involved in offenses of fraud, smuggling, and money laundering.
Assassinated journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia raised the alarm about Hurgin and Ability Inc back in August 2016. She also reported that he said:
“With just a few million dollars and a phone number, you can snoop on any call or text that phone makes – no matter where you are or where the device is located.”