Over 1K in 50 Nations Reportedly Targeted for Cellphone Surveillance By Hacking Group

Over 1,000 people in 50 nations were reportedly targeted for cellphone surveillance by Israel-based hacking group NSO Group, the Associated Press reported.

Paris-based global media organization Forbidden Stories conducted an investigation and published its findings Sunday that asserted military-grade spyware from the hacking group was used in Hungary to spy on journalists and lawyers among others.

Over 50,000 cell phone numbers were obtained by the journalism nonprofit and Amnesty International that revealed the numerous alleged targets of those working for the NSO Group.

"Our perspective is that staying silent would essentially be an acknowledgment that the government is indeed involved in this," Janos Stummer, the chairman of Hungary's parliamentary national security committee, told the AP.

The committee ordered an emergency session to investigate the country's potential participation in digital surveillance. Meanwhile, the NSO Group said Forbidden Stories' findings were "full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories."

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

NSO Group Building
Over 1,000 people in 50 nations were allegedly targeted for cellphone surveillance by NSO Group. In this photo, an Israeli woman uses her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO Group, on August 28, 2016, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. Jack Guez/AFP via Getty Images

Opposition lawmakers in Hungary's parliament have demanded an inquiry into findings by the international investigation that the country's right-wing government used powerful malware to spy on critical journalists, politicians and business figures.

NSO Group is an infamous hacker-for-hire outfit. The targets included at least 10 lawyers, one opposition politician and at least five journalists.

The results of the investigation prompted three members of Hungary's parliamentary national security committee to call for an emergency session to question government agencies on their potential involvement in the spying.

Stummer, a lawmaker from the right-wing opposition party Jobbik, told The Associated Press that the surveillance described by the investigation is "not permissible in a state governed by the rule of law."

The committee will question Hungary's national security and intelligence agencies on the allegations, he said, adding that a majority of seats on the committee are held by governing party lawmakers who could potentially block the inquiry by boycotting the session.

The malware, Pegasus, infiltrates phones to vacuum up personal and location data and surreptitiously control the smartphone's microphones and cameras. In the case of journalists, that lets hackers spy on reporters' communications with sources.

The Guardian, part of the 16-member media consortium that conducted the investigation, reported that forensic analysis revealed that the phones of two journalists with Hungarian investigative outlet Direkt36 had been repeatedly infected by the malware.

NSO Group denied in an emailed response to the AP that it had ever maintained "a list of potential, past or existing targets."

In response to questions from the AP, a spokesperson for the Hungarian government wrote in an email that Hungary "is a democratic state governed by the rule of law," and that state bodies authorized to use covert instruments "are regularly monitored by governmental and nongovernmental institutions."

"What would be the answer of the governments of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, Germany or France to the same questions? Will we ever find out who — or which secret services — have an interest in pillorying Hungary?" the spokesperson wrote.

Hungary's Ministry of Justice didn't respond to requests for comment.

Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto told journalists after a meeting of regional foreign ministers in the northern city of Komarom on Monday that his government was "unaware of any such data collection," and that the civilian intelligence agency he oversees "did not participate in any way" in the spying.

Szijjarto, casting some doubt on whether the digital infiltration had occurred, said he had asked the director of the agency to examine whether the reports were the product of a "coordinated communication action" by unnamed secret services.

The allegations of government spying come amid a rapid deterioration in media freedom and plurality in Hungary. Since Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his governing Fidesz party took power in 2010, the country has slipped from 23 to 92 in the World Press Freedom Index ranking.

Earlier this month, media watchdog Reporters Without Borders placed Orban on its list of "predators," the first time a Western European leader appeared in the lineup of heads of state or government who "crackdown massively" on press freedom.

Peter Ungar, a member of Hungary's national security committee with opposition green party LMP, told the AP that the committee would seek to determine whether the individuals identified by the investigation had indeed been under surveillance.

It would also inquire into who authorized the surveillance and on what grounds, and what was done with the collected data, he said.

"If any part of this is true, even half of it, it's one of the deepest national security scandals I have seen," Ungar said.