Activist company

Foreign Office phones hacked even after spyware company claims to have blocked UK numbers

Foreign allies used Israeli spyware to hack into government phones after the company claimed it blocked surveillance on British phones, it has emerged.

Pegasus spyware, sold by the NSO Group to intelligence agencies, was used to infect Foreign Ministry phones between July 2020 and June 2021, with India and the United Arab Emirates among the suspected countries in the source of hacking attempts.

It is understood that the Israeli company updated the surveillance tool in August 2020 after it was used by Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the Prime Minister of the United Arab Emirates, to hack into his phone. ex-wife, Princess Haya, and her divorce lawyers. The update meant users of the technology, which can intercept data and turn a phone into a recording device remotely, were unable to act on UK numbers, raising new questions about how whose phones at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs were infected.

The Citizen Lab, based at the University of Toronto, which released its findings on Monday, suggested that the Department of Foreign Affairs’ devices could have been located overseas, like those used by the department’s thousands of diplomats.

NSO Group denied the claims when approached by The Telegraph, but admitted it had “terminated several contacts” after “potential abuse” was suspected.

Last year, it emerged that at least nine US State Department phones had been hacked using the software, with NSO pledging to investigate and terminate the contract of the agency that used its software.

Earlier that year, it was reported that numbers from the United States, as well as other Five Eyes countries (Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom) and Israel, were exempt from the tool. spy.

“The NSO should be sanctioned”

On Tuesday night, the government was called on to sanction the NSO group for its role in spying on the UK and its allies.

David Lammy, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, told the Telegraph: “These disturbing revelations raise serious questions about cybersecurity at the heart of government and the actions of the UK’s close partners.

“This needs to be thoroughly investigated.

“NSO should be sanctioned for enabling malicious cyber activity against the UK, our allies and human rights and democracy activists around the world.”

Amnesty International echoed Labour’s call, saying there should be “an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of this type of surveillance technology until a framework strong regulations are put in place”.

Boris Johnson could raise an issue during his visit to India

One of the Pegasus spyware infections on a Foreign Office phone has been linked to India by The Citizen Lab, with their findings coming less than three weeks after Liz Truss announced that India and the Kingdom UK “will conduct joint exercises to train against threats from cybercriminals and ransomware.”

It has been suggested Boris Johnson is likely to raise the issue when he meets Narendra Modi in India later this week.

RUSI, the leading defense and security think tank, told The Telegraph the issue may not be discussed publicly due to an ongoing inquiry at India’s Supreme Court which is weighing evidence that its government has used the Pegasus spyware to monitor political opponents, journalists and activists.

Additya Dave, research analyst on international security studies at Rusi, said: “The UK Prime Minister will probably mention the specific case of an FCDO device hack by an Indian operator, but he might find it more fruitful to do so at behind closed doors.

“There is an ongoing investigation by the Supreme Court in India into the alleged use of Pegasus software by the Indian government, so the government is unlikely to be willing to discuss it publicly during the visit.

“While the government has denied using Pegasus for illicit espionage, it has been less clear whether it purchased the software or used it for what it claims are security reasons. national.”

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been contacted for comment.

The ONS denies the allegations

A spokesperson for NSO Group said the claims found by The Citizen Lab were “false and could not be linked to NSO products for technological and contractual reasons”.

“We have repeatedly stated that, although we are limited in what we can say due to privacy and national security concerns, we have investigated when credible allegations warranted it, and have learned from each of these findings and reports, and improved the safeguards of our technologies. , the customer verification process and our ability to investigate potential misuse by our customers.

“In fact, we terminated several contracts after potential abuse was suspected.”