Amazon Takes Down NSO-linked Accounts Amid Israeli Spyware Scandal

Amazon tells VICE accounts linked to cyber surveillance firm taken off AWS service as calls to crack down on company grow in wake of Pegasus Project investigation

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NSO group offices in Israel.
NSO group offices in Israel.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Amazon Web Services, the largest cloud service provider in the world, has reportedly taken down “infrastructure and accounts” linked to the Israeli cyber espionage firm NSO Group, Vice media reported Monday. 

An investigation published Sunday by Project Pegasus, a consortium of more than 80 journalists from 17 news organizations worldwide including Haaretz, into misuse of NSO’s flagship spyware by clients across the world revealed that over 80 journalists and a number of leading politicians were potentially targeted by the Pegasus software.

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According to the records analyzed by the Pegasus Project partners, more than 180 journalists were selected in 21 countries by at least 12 NSO clients. The potential targets and clients hail from Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, India, Mexico, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Togo and Rwanda. The project's coordinators Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and Amnesty International, had access to a leak of more than 50,000 records of phone numbers that NSO clients selected for surveillance. 

"When we learned of this activity, we acted quickly to shut down the relevant infrastructure and accounts," a spokesperson for AWS, Amazon’s cloud service which hosts websites, told Vice’s Joseph Cox in a statement on Monday.

Amazon did not respond to a question from Reuters whether the accounts were related to the NSO Group. 

Read more >> Revealed: Israel's cyber-spy industry helps world dictators hunt dissidents and gays ■ The Israeli cyber weapon used against 180 journalists ■ Khashoggi’s fiancee, son targeted by NSO tech, investigation reveals ■ How NSO's Pegasus is used to spy on journalists ■ Analysis: How Israeli spy-tech became dictators' weapon of choice

NSO has denied what it called "the false allegations" raised by the organizations and said it sells technology only to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments.

"Our technologies are being used every day to break up pedophilia rings, sex and drug-trafficking rings, locate missing and kidnapped children, locate survivors trapped under collapsed buildings, and protect airspace against disruptive penetration by dangerous drones," the company said.

The Defense Ministry said Monday that Israel approves the export of cyber products "exclusively to governmental entities, for lawful use, and only for the purpose of preventing and investigating crime and counter terrorism."

"In cases where exported items are used in violation of export licenses or end use certificates, appropriate measures are taken," the ministry said, without elaborating.

Earlier in the day, Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz, head of Meretz and a member of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's decision-making security cabinet, told reporters he would meet Defense Minister Benny Gantz on Thursday to discuss exports by NSO Group.

Speaking during a televised Meretz faction meeting, lawmaker Mossi Raz called on the party to demand that Israel halt NSO exports, which he likened to "exporting weaponry, which is forbidden to non-democratic countries."

But another Meretz lawmaker, former Israeli military deputy chief Yair Golan, was more circumspect, saying the reporting on NSO "looks tendentious, with a commercial motivation" and adding: "It is not just NSO that does such things."

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