The spyware can turn a phone into a listening device.
Research group Citizen Lab has found that spyware made by NSO Group Ltd. was used to target a device connected to the network of 10 Downing Street, the office and residence of Britain’s prime minister.
Israel-based NSO Group is the developer of the Pegasus spyware, which was used in this case. The company provides Pegasus to military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies. The spyware is designed to infect iPhones without requiring the user to take any action, such as opening a malicious file, and can delete itself to avoid detection.
Citizen Lab, which is affiliated with the University of Toronto, announced their findings on Monday. The research group also revealed that NSO Group spyware was used to target more than 60 phones in Catalonia, Spain, including devices belonging to elected officials, academics and activists.
“We confirm that in 2020 and 2021 we observed and notified the government of the United Kingdom of multiple suspected instances of Pegasus spyware infections within official UK networks.
According to the group, the impacted networks included:
- The Prime Minister’s Office (10 Downing Street)
- The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) (Now the Foreign Commonwealth and Development office – FCDO)
“The suspected infections relating to the FCO were associated with Pegasus operators that we link to the UAE, India, Cyprus, and Jordan,” they said. “The suspected infection at the UK Prime Minister’s Office was associated with a Pegasus operator we link to the UAE.”
NSO Group is under scrutiny worldwide
Last year, the U.S. Department of Commerce sanctioned NSO Group after determining that the company’s spyware was used by foreign governments to target government officials, journalists, businesspeople, activists, academics and embassy workers maliciously. NSO Group was added to an Entity List maintained by the Commerce Department’s Bureau of Industry and Security.
Citizen Lab also explained their motivations. “Given that a UK-based lawyer involved in a lawsuit against NSO Group was hacked with Pegasus in 2019, we felt compelled to ensure that the UK Government was aware of the ongoing spyware threat, and took appropriate action to mitigate it,” they said.