Internet watchdog Citizen Lab has so far counted some 175 targets of NSO – an Israeli surveillance company – spyware worldwide.
An Amnesty International employee has been targeted with Israeli-made surveillance software, the human rights group said on Wednesday, adding to a growing number of examples of Israeli technology being used to spy on human rights workers and opposition figures in the Middle East and beyond.
In a 20-page report, Amnesty outlined how it thinks a hacker tried to break into an unidentified staff member's smartphone in early June by baiting the employee with a WhatsApp message about a protest in front of the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
The London-based human rights organisation said it traced the malicious link in the message to a network of sites tied to the NSO Group. This Israeli surveillance company has been implicated in a series of digital break-in attempts, including a campaign to compromise proponents of a soda tax in Mexico and an effort to hack into the phone of an Arab dissident that prompted an update to Apple's operating system.
Joshua Franco, Amnesty's head of technology and human rights, said the latest hacking attempt was emblematic of the increased digital risk faced by activists worldwide.
"This is the new normal for human rights defenders," Franco said.
NSO said in a written statement that its product was "intended to be used exclusively for the investigation and prevention of crime and terrorism" and that allegations of wrongdoing would be investigated. In response to a series of written questions, the company said past allegations of customer misuse had, in an undisclosed number of cases, led to the termination of contracts.
Amnesty's findings were corroborated by internet watchdog Citizen Lab, which has been tracking NSO spyware for two years and is based at the University of Toronto's Munk School of Global Affairs.
In its own report released on Wednesday, Citizen Lab said it so far had counted some 175 targets of NSO spyware worldwide, including 150 people in Panama identified as part of a massive domestic espionage scandal swirling around the country's former president.
The Amnesty International report said the organisation identified a second human rights activist, in Saudi Arabia, who was targeted in a similar way to its staffer. Citizen Lab said it found traces of similar hacking attempts tied to Qatar or Saudi, hinting at the use of the Israeli spyware elsewhere in the Gulf.
Any possible use of Israeli technology to police dissent in the Arab world could raise uncomfortable questions both for Israel, which still sees itself as a bastion of democracy in the region, and for countries with no formal diplomatic ties to the Jewish state.
For Amnesty's Franco, it was a sign of an out-of-control trade in high-tech surveillance tools.
"This is a huge market that's completely opaque and under-regulated," he said.