Researchers find Israeli-made Pegasus spyware used against Armenians
Access Now says its joint investigation with other NGOs and academic groups confirmed that 12 people had been targeted with Pegasus in Armenia.
At least a dozen Armenian journalists, NGO workers, and officials had their phones hacked with the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware while the country fought with Azerbaijan, a rights group confirmed on Thursday.
Developed by the Israeli NSO Group, the malware, which can seize control of a smartphone's microphone and camera, hit global headlines when a leak in 2021 showed how governments used it to spy on critics, journalists, and NGOs.
Access Now said their report was the first to document evidence of spyware being used in an international conflict. Armenia and Azerbaijan fought a brief war in 2020 for control of the disputed region of Nagorno-Karabakh, after an earlier conflict in the 1990s. The fallout from the wars continues with the two sides meeting for talks in Moscow on Thursday.
Access Now said its joint investigation with other NGOs and academic groups confirmed that 12 people had been targeted with Pegasus. Among them were Armenia's human rights chief, journalists for US government-funded Radio Free Europe, and a United Nations official.
Anna Naghdalyan, who served as a spokesperson for Armenia's Foreign Ministry during the conflict, was among the hacked victims and said her phone had held sensitive information about the war.
"This was just another indicator that all (parts of) our life can be targeted," Naghdalyan told AFP.
Read more: Researchers expose Pegasus' methods of hacking newest iPhones: Report
Hacking was at its most intense during 2020 conflict
Access Now said the hacking was most intense during the conflict in late 2020 and the tense months afterward when the two sides engaged in peace talks and sporadic clashes.
The NGO said it could not be 100% sure who had carried out the surveillance as both countries have deployed spyware in the past.
"While the covert nature of surveillance tech means there aren't always clear breadcrumbs that lead to a perpetrator, circumstances and precedent point to Azerbaijani authorities," Access Now's Senior Humanitarian Officer Giulio Coppi told AFP.
That is in part because of "extensive evidence" that Azerbaijan's government has previously used Pegasus against its domestic opponents, said Amnesty's Donncha O Cearbhaill, referring to a 2021 investigation by Amnesty and other partners that found hundreds of Azeri phone numbers had been selected for targeting with Pegasus spyware.
The Azeri Embassy in London said in a statement that Azerbaijan "does not engage in such practices" and "does not spy on foreign citizens."
Access Now called for a global ban on the sale of spyware until such programs can be made compliant with international law.
"Providing Pegasus spyware to either of the countries' authorities in the context of a violent conflict carries a substantial risk of contributing to and facilitating serious human rights violations and even war crimes," warned the report.
"This investigation shows that NSO Group not only failed to learn its lesson, but has doubled down on its abuses."
NSO, which faces multiple lawsuits from Apple and others, has repeatedly insisted it sells its software only to government clients and only for peaceful purposes.
But the 2021 leak suggested there were around 50,000 potential victims of Pegasus around the world, many of whom were opposition figures, journalists, and activists.
Read more: Israeli spyware NSO still hides among the walls of the White House