Sat, Feb 16, 2019 - Page 9 News List

Undercover spy exposed in New York was one of many

Operatives with links to the Israeli firm NSO Group have approached six people over the past two months seeking information about a lawsuit targeting the company

By Aron Heller, David Keyton, Jamey Keaten, Vincent Yu, Sylvain  /  AP, LONDON

Illustration: Tania Chou

When mysterious operatives lured two cybersecurity researchers to meetings at luxury hotels over the past two months, it was an apparent bid to discredit their research about an Israeli company that makes smartphone hacking technology used by some governments to spy on their citizens.

The Associated Press (AP) has learned of similar undercover efforts targeting at least four other people who have raised questions about the use of the Israeli firm’s spyware.

The four others targeted by operatives include three lawyers involved in related lawsuits in Israel and Cyprus alleging that the company, NSO Group, sold its spyware to governments with questionable human rights records. The fourth is a London-based journalist who has covered the litigation.

Two of them — the journalist and a Cyprus-based lawyer — were secretly recorded meeting the undercover operatives; footage of them was broadcast on Israeli television just as the AP was preparing to publish this story.

All six of the people who were targeted said that they believe the operatives were part of a coordinated effort to discredit them.

“There’s somebody who’s really interested in sabotaging the case,” said one of the targets, Mazen Masri, who teaches at City University, London, and is advising the plaintiffs’ attorney in the case in Israel.

The operatives were “looking for dirt and irrelevant information about people involved,” Masri said.

The details of these covert efforts offer a glimpse into the sometimes shadowy world of private investigators, which includes some operatives who go beyond gathering information and instead act as provocateurs.

The targets told reporters that the covert agents tried to goad them into making racist and anti-Israel remarks, or revealing sensitive information about their work in connection with the lawsuits.

NSO has previously said it has nothing to do with the undercover efforts “either directly or indirectly.”

It did not return repeated messages asking about the new targets.

US private equity firm Francisco Partners, which owns NSO, did not return a message seeking comment.

The undercover operatives’ activities might never have been made public had it not been for two researchers who work at Citizen Lab, an Internet watchdog group that is based out of the University of Toronto’s Munk School.

In December last year, one of the researchers, John Scott-Railton, realized that a colleague had been tricked into meeting an operative at a Toronto hotel, then questioned about his work on NSO.

When a second operative calling himself Michel Lambert approached Scott-Railton to arrange a similar meeting at the Peninsula Hotel in New York, Scott-Railton devised a sting operation, inviting AP journalists to interrupt the lunch and videotape the encounter.

The story drew wide attention in Israel. Within days, Israeli investigative television show Uvda and the New York Times identified Lambert as Aharon Almog-Assouline, a former Israeli security official living in the plush Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon.

By then, Scott-Railton and reporters had determined that the undercover efforts went well beyond Citizen Lab.

Within hours of the story’s publication, Masri wrote to the AP to say that he and Alaa Mahajna, who is pursuing the lawsuit against NSO in Israel, had spent weeks parrying offers from two wealthy-sounding executives who had contacted them with lucrative offers of work and insistent requests to meet in London.

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