Researchers at Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto said it found that in July and August, at least four operatives used Israeli firm NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to hack 36 personal phones of journalists, executives, anchors and producers.
According to the report, one of the four Pegasus operators, which acted on behalf of the Saudi government, hacked 18 phones, while another operator which is believed to have acted on behalf of the UAE, spied on 15 phones.
“The zero-click techniques used against Al Jazeera staff were sophisticated, difficult to detect, and largely focused on the personal devices of reporters,” the report said.
The hacking campaign was discovered after a well-known investigative journalist for Al Jazeera’s Arabic network, Tamer Almisshal who thought his phone had been compromised allowed the Citizen Lab to monitor his iPhone.
The researchers found that in July, his phone — without his knowledge — had visited a website used to infect a target with the Pegasus spyware.
The Citizen Lab also said that the personal phone of Rania Dridi, a London-based presenter for Qatar’s Al Araby network, had been hacked six times with spyware between October 2019 and July 2020.
Dridi told the Guardian she had been shocked by the discovery, and announced her plan to take legal action against the UAE.
“I don’t know how to explain my feeling. It messes with your mind. Everything, your private life, it’s not private any more. It wasn’t [just] for a month, it was for a year, and they have everything: the phone calls, the pictures, videos, they can turn the microphone on,” she said, adding “It makes you feel insecure.”
The reports of the hacking campaign against the journalists come as Saudi Arabia and the UAE have called for the closure of Al Jazeera over concerns of its critical coverage after the onset of the diplomatic crisis with Qatar in 2017.
In June 2017, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt and the UAE severed diplomatic and trade relations with Qatar and imposed an air, land and sea embargo on the energy-rich state.
The Saudi-led quartet accused Doha of supporting terrorism, presented it with a list of demands that included shutting down Al Jazeera, and gave it an ultimatum to comply with them or face consequences.
Qatar, however, denied terrorism charges and refused to meet the conditions laid out by the boycotting bloc, stressing that the country would not abandon its independent foreign policy.
Earlier this year, the Citizen Lab said in a report that Ben Hubbard, a New York Times reporter who has written a book about Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, had been targeted with Pegasus spyware linked to Saudi Arabia in 2018.
In 2019, the Citizen Lab found that the same software, which enables customers to remotely exploit and monitor devices, was used to spy on Saudi dissent journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s inner circle before he was killed at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.