Amazon takes NSO Group infrastructure offline

Amazon Web Services (AWS) has closed all accounts linked to the NSO Group. The Israeli company used Amazon’s CloudFront to distribute its Pegasus spy software. In response, Jeff Bezos’ company decided to take the company’s entire infrastructure on AWS offline.

A partnership of seventeen news organizations, human rights organization Amnesty International and the journalistic platform Forbidden Stories announced on Monday that they had obtained a list of 50,000 telephone numbers. According to the researchers, these were potential victims whose communications were or could be tapped between 2016 and June 2021.

The list contained no names. Still, reporters managed to identify a thousand men. They say the list includes many prominent figures from the business world, human rights activists, politicians and dignitaries. In addition, at least 189 journalists are mentioned. They write for media outlets such as CNN, Associated Press (AP), The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Financial Times, Bloomberg and Al Jazeera.

Pegasus was used to eavesdrop on the people on the telephone list. That is espionage or surveillance software developed by the NSO Group. The spyware collects text messages, emails, photos, videos, location data, and contact phone numbers. Pegasus can also silently record phone calls, take screenshots and turn on the camera.

Amnesty International’s Citizen Lab has investigated the NSO Group’s espionage program. The forensic investigation shows that at least 67 smartphones are infected with Pegasus. In addition, at least 37 journalists and human rights activists were hacked to eavesdrop on them. To distribute the surveillance software, the NSO Group used Amazon Web Services’ CloudFront. This is a content delivery network (CDN) that allows customers to deliver their content (in this case Pegasus) to customers faster.

This prompted Amazon to remove all accounts of the NSO Group from its servers. “Once we learned of these activities, we acted quickly to shut down the relevant infrastructure and accounts,” an Amazon spokesperson told Motherboard in an email. In its own words, the NSO Group is violating Amazon Web Services’ terms of use by distributing Pegasus in this way.

The site emphasizes that it is striking that Amazon is now taking action against the NSO Group. In May 2020, Motherboard showed evidence that the Israeli company is distributing its spy software through Amazon’s infrastructure. Then the online retailer and cloud provider did not intervene.

Incidentally, the closure of Amazon Web Services does not mean that the NSO Group can no longer distribute its eavesdropping program. Research by Amnesty International has shown that the company is already using the infrastructure and services of other providers, including Digital Ocean, OVH and Linode.

The NSO Group has been under fire for years because of the wiretapping program. The company says it only sells its software to security services and ‘veiled governments’ to track down terrorists and cybercriminals and guarantee national security. However, many journalists, lawyers and human rights activists do not believe this lecture. The company has therefore been sued more than once in the past, but without success.

The NSO Group strongly denies that it sells its software to criminals, or is used to intimidate, arrest or even murder journalists and human rights activists. A link between the murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi and Pegasus has been suggested more than once. The NSO Group is far from that.

Our technologies are used daily to take down paedophile and drug and sex trafficker networks, locate missing and abducted children, locate survivors trapped under collapsed buildings and protect the airspace from disruptive penetration by dangerous drones. the NSO Group wrote in a press statement earlier this week. The company is therefore considering taking legal action.

Meanwhile, United Nations (UN) High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet is calling on governments to stop using Pegasus. “The revelations about the apparently widespread use of the Pegasus software to spy on journalists, human rights defenders, politicians and others in various countries are extremely alarming. They seem to confirm some of our worst nightmares about the potential misuse of surveillance technology to illegally undermine people’s human rights,” Bachelet said. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, called the use of the spy software “completely unacceptable”.

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