The top echelons of the European Union were targeted with Israeli spyware last year, linked to an elite Israeli surveillance firm, Reuters said in a new report. This news was confirmed by two high-ranking EU officials and the documentation was analyzed by Reuters.
Among the targeted was EU Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders, as well as an additional four EU Commission officials, the Brussels Times added. EU officials noted that the findings are very serious and that it is a top priority to get to the bottom of the issue.
Alerts Sent Out Last Year
The EU Commission was being targeted by spyware in November of last year, Reuters said. This news came by way of Apple who sent thousands of alerts to iPhone owners in November saying they were in the crosshairs of a state-sponsored attack. This was also the first time Apple had released a mass alert of this nature.
Now, the digital forensics results relating to the targeting come at a time when “the European Union is beginning to follow the United States in taking a harder look at spyware merchants like NSO,” Reuters stated.
“ForcedEntry” and “QuaDream” Spyware
Security researchers looking at this case said that the individuals were targeted with “ForcedEntry” spyware between February and September 2021. The spyware is “an advanced piece of software that was used by Israeli Cyber surveillance NSO Group to help foreign spy agencies remotely and invisibly take control of iPhones,” Reuters wrote. “ForcedEntry” resembles the infamous NSO “Pegasus” tool, the Brussels Times added.
“ForcedEntry,” like Pegasus, can exploit the Kernel of the iPhone’s iOS operating system thereby easily “tapping” smartphones without any need for passwords or permissions, the Brussels Times explained.
According to Reuters, a smaller highly clandestine Israeli spyware vendor dubbed “QuaDream” may have also had a hand in this. After all, both the “ForcedEntry” NSO spyware and “QuaDream” tools were sold to government clients in the past.
NSO Group Tools
NSO Group is a notorious cybersecurity company that has been the target of several lawsuits due to its history of cyber-surveillance aimed at ordinary citizens, particularly in repressive regimes, Reuters said.
NSO’s tools have been suspected of being used against civilians by several nations all over the world such as Bahrain, India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Mexico, Spain, and others. Consequently, the State of Israel said it was cutting cyber tool exports.
While the Israeli cybersecurity company NSO battles financial and legal troubles, it has also appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court to try to save itself from a lawsuit filed by WhatsApp, said the Associated Press yesterday. In addition to that, NSO is also battling a hefty lawsuit from Apple.
Exact Details Still Unconfirmed
It is still unknown who exactly targeted the EU Justice Commissioner’s iPhone, or whether those attacks were successful, the Brussels Times added. All officials and staffers affected by the attack “have refused to talk to the media.”
It is also unclear whether the EU Commission is actively investigating this matter. The iPhone digital forensics sweeps of the EU officials conducted by IT experts were inconclusive regarding that, Reuters reported.
NSO group remarked in a statement that the spyware targeting “could not have happened with NSO’s tools,” Reuters added. “QuaDream” did not respond to messages at all.
EU Now a High Profile Target
The European Parliament is launching an investigation committee into the use of surveillance software in EU member states on April 19th, 2022, EU lawmaker Sophie in ‘t Veld stated. “We really have to get to the bottom of this,” she said.
Sophie in t’ Veld championed the committee’s creation as a result of a round of spyware targeting officials in Poland, which was confirmed in an investigation earlier this year in January. Furthermore, Hungarian journalists were also targets of spyware. Although both Poland and Hungary acknowledged that they purchased NSO software, “both nations have denied wrongdoing in relation to allegations of domestic espionage,” Reuters said.
As such, the EU region is “a very high profile target for multiple actors,” a research fellow at the Clingendael Netherlands Institute of International Relations Kenneth Lasoen said. “Brussels is a true nest of espionage,” he added.
Find out more about the various types of spyware and how to protect your devices from them in our full guide on spyware.