Using spyware against journalists would be completely unacceptable, a senior European Union official said on Monday, after reports that an Israeli company's spyware was used to hack the smartphones of journalists, government officials and human rights activists around the world.
The use of the software, called Pegasus and developed by Israel's private company the NSO group, was reported Sunday by the Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde and other news outlets who collaborated on an investigation into a data leak.
"What we could read so far, and this has to be verified, but if it is the case, it is completely unacceptable. Against any kind of rules we have in the European Union," the head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said during a visit to Prague.
"Freedom of media, free press is one of the core values of the EU. It is completely unacceptable if this (hacking) were to be the case."
The Washington Post said the spyware was used to target phones belonging to two women close to Jamal Khashoggi, a Post columnist murdered at a Saudi consulate in Turkey in 2018, before and after his death.
The Guardian said the investigation suggested “widespread and continuing abuse” of NSO’s hacking software, described as malware that infects smartphones to enable the extraction of messages, photos and emails; record calls; and secretly activate microphones.
The investigation did not reveal who attempted the hacks or why.
NSO said its product is intended only for use by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime.
The company issued a statement on its website denying the reporting by the 17 media partners led by the Paris-based journalism nonprofit Forbidden Stories.
“The report by Forbidden Stories is full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources. It seems like the ‘unidentified sources’ have supplied information that has no factual basis and are far from reality,” the company said in the statement.
“After checking their claims, we firmly deny the false allegations made in their report,” the statement said.
NSO said its technology was not associated in any way with Khashoggi’s murder. NSO representatives were not immediately available to provide additional information.
In a statement, rights group Amnesty International decried what it termed “the wholesale lack of regulation” of surveillance software.
“Until this company (NSO) and the industry as a whole can show it is capable of respecting human rights, there must be an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology,” the rights group said in a statement.
The targeted phone numbers were on a list provided by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International to the 17 media organizations. It was not clear how the groups obtained the list.
The numbers on the list were not attributed, but reporters identified more than 1,000 people spanning more than 50 countries, the Post said. They included several Arab royal family members, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists and more than 600 politicians and government officials – including several heads of state and prime ministers.
The Guardian said the numbers of more than 180 journalists were listed in the data, including reporters, editors and executives at the Financial Times, CNN, New York Times, the Economist, Associated Press and Reuters.
“We are deeply troubled to learn that two AP journalists, along with journalists from many news organizations, are among those who may have been targeted by Pegasus spyware,” said Director of AP Media Relations Lauren Easton.
“We have taken steps to ensure the security of our journalists’ devices and are investigating,” she added.
Reuters’ spokesman Dave Moran said, “Journalists must be allowed to report the news in the public interest without fear of harassment or harm, wherever they are. We are aware of the report and are looking into the matter.”
The other media organizations could not be immediately reached for comment on Sunday.