About nine US State Department employees had their iPhones hacked by an unknown assailant via the Israel-based NSO Group’s spyware. Sources believe the hacks took place in the last several months with the target being US officials based in Uganda. This has come to be regarded as the widest known hacks of US officials through NSO technology.
The NSO Group, in an official statement, said it did not have any indication their tools were used but canceled access for the relevant customers and would investigate. “If our investigation shall show these actions indeed happened with NSO’s tools, such customer will be terminated permanently and legal actions will take place,” an NSO spokesperson said.
The Israeli company says its hacking software cannot work on phones that begin with the US +1 country code. According to Reuters, the allegedly hacked State Department employees were using local phones in Uganda.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, in a briefing said they have been acutely concerned that commercial spyware like NSO Group software poses a serious counterintelligence and security risk to US personnel. A senior Biden administration official told Reuters that such hacking was the reason that the US decided to crack down on groups like NSO.
The Israeli embassy in Washington, in a statement, said that the targeting of US officials would be a serious breach of its rules, the Defense Ministry must authorize the sale of spyware firms’ products abroad. “Cyber products like the one mentioned are supervised and licensed to be exported to governments only for purposes related to counter-terrorism and severe crimes,” a spokesperson for the Israeli embassy said. “The licensing provisions are very clear and if these claims are true, it is a severe violation of these provisions.”
NSO Group has been flagged in a number of countries and faced a torrent of international criticism over allegations it helps governments spy on dissidents and rights activists. But the Israeli firm reiterates its product is meant only to assist countries in fighting crime and terrorism.