World News

Rights group: Jordan likely using Pegasus spyware to monitor journalists, activists

By Paul Godfrey   |   Feb. 1, 2024 at 8:59 AM
Jordan is likely making widespread use of the Israel-developed Pegasus spyware to keep tabs on journalists, activists, human rights lawyers and the non-governmental sector, a report has found. Jordan has been a frequent target of terror attacks including a December 2016 attack by Islamic State at the historic Kerak Castel in Al-Karak city (pictured) in which 14 people were killed and 27 wounded. File Photo by Jamal Nasrallah/EPA

Feb. 1 (UPI) -- Jordan is likely making widespread use of the Israel-developed Pegasus spyware to keep tabs on journalists, activists, human rights lawyers and the non-governmental sector, a new report published Friday alleged.

At least 35 people had their phones hacked and infected with the spyware in the four years to 2023 amid a "backdrop of escalating crackdowns on civic space and press freedoms in Jordan," according to a news release from the non-profit Access Now which conducted the investigation with the Citizen Lab and local partners.


Two Human Rights Watch staff based in Jordan were among those targeted, confirmed through internal HRW forensic analysis in collaboration with Amnesty International's Security Lab, as well as 16 journalists and media workers.

Human rights lawyer Hala Ahed, whose phone was first infected three years ago, was one of eight human rights lawyers targeted, five local activists and one politician.

Agents targeting them sometimes pretended to be journalists seeking interview or comment requests to trick victims into receiving the "zero-click" Pegasus spyware via messages, with a number of them reinfected on multiple occasions multiple times "demonstrating the relentless nature of this targeted surveillance campaign."

Access Now said the shadowy nature of spyware made it difficult to state conclusively that the Jordanian government was behind the surveillance but noted that the developer of the Pegasus technology, NSO Group, insists it only supplies it to governments.

Access Now is calling for a ban on Pegasus, halting the export, sale, transfer, and use of invasive commercial digital surveillance technologies that enable human rights abuses, pending the introduction of "rigorous human rights safeguards."

"The shocking number of surveillance victims revealed in the investigation by Access Now and Citizen Lab is the biggest since 2022," said Access Now surveillance campaigns lead Rand Hammoud.

"The proliferating use of Pegasus spyware, facilitating more human rights abuses, demonstrates once again the urgent need for governments to regulate the surveillance industry."

In May, an Access Now-led consortium of digital rights groups accused Azerbaijan and the NSO Group of using military-grade spyware to keep tabs on members of civil society in its ethnic Armenian-minority population as far back as 2021.

Also targeted, the report said, were journalists, human rights activities and at least one United Nations official.

Researchers found "circumstantial evidence" that the clandestine operation, which used Pegasus spyware, was linked to military conflict between Azerbaijan and Armenia in the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region -- the first documented instance of the "use of Pegasus spyware in an international war context."

In October 2021, after months of pressure, India's Supreme Court launched an inquiry into accusations the government was using spyware to illegally monitor the phones of lawmakers, activists and journalists.

The three-member committee was tasked with investigating claims surveillance targets were clients of NSO and whether the government used Pegasus to spy on its citizens.

The probe came three months after the global media Pegasus Project found hundreds of Indian phone numbers, among a worldwide list of 50,000, that included that of opposition leader Rahul Ghandi, election commission official Ashok Lavasa and the founders of an independent media outlet that contributed to the project.

In November of 2021, the U.S. Department of Commerce sanctioned NSO Group and three other groups in Russia and Singapore over malicious cyberactivity "contrary to the foreign policy and national security interests of the U.S."