Israeli firm NSO’s spyware again hacking iPhones

University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab releases findings after detecting infiltration of Mexican human rights defenders.

Apr 19, 2023

A research group says the Israeli NSO Group’s spyware was used to launch at least three “zero click” attacks on the iPhones of civil society members last year.

Citizen Lab released its findings on Tuesday into NSO’s global reach after its software infected the phones of at least two human rights defenders in Mexico in 2022.

NSO’s Pegasus spyware can infiltrate a mobile device either through a text message that users click or more recently through “zero-click attacks”.

Those intrusions compromise devices without any action by the user. Messages, chats, phone calls, contacts and emails can be monitored.

The latest identified hacks, Citizen Lab said, targeted phones with iOS 15 and iOS 16 operating software. The Lab shared its findings with Apple, which made security improvements to fix the flaws used by the spyware.

Apple’s Lockdown Mode successfully blocked one of the three attacks, the research showed.

NSO Group is an Israeli cyber-surveillance firm regulated by Israel’s Ministry of Defense. Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has studied Pegasus extensively.

‘Penetrate and perhaps blunt’

Citizen Lab said it first found the zero-click exploits in a joint investigation with Mexican NGO Red en Defensa de los Derechos Digitales (Digital Rights Defence Network), or RD3, after examining phones of Mexican human rights activists.

“The timing of the infections on their devices corresponds to events of importance to the activities of Centro PRODH, and suggests that the Pegasus operator may have been seeking to penetrate and perhaps blunt the impact of Centro PRODH’s work relating to human rights violations committed by the Mexican Army,” the report said.

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