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Military-Grade Israeli Spyware Used To Hack Phones of Journalists and Activists, Report Finds

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NSO Group, the Israeli cyber intelligence firm that licenses the spyware, has faced scrutiny in the past for allegedly selling their products to authoritarian governments.


Media Consortium Publishes NSO Group Report

Military-grade spyware sold by the Israeli firm NSO Group has been used by authoritarian governments to spy on heads of state, journalists, activists, and others all over the world, according to an investigation by 17 media organizations and nonprofits published Sunday.

The spyware in question, called Pegasus, is malware that infects cell phones, then enables operators to obtain messages, photos, emails, and record calls through microphones that are secretly activated.

According to The Washington Post, which was one of the media partners leading the report, the investigation found that the software “was used in attempted and successful hacks of 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives and two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.”

“The phones appeared on a list of more than 50,000 numbers that are concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens and also known to have been clients of the Israeli firm,” the outlet added. 

Notably, inclusion on the list does not necessarily mean all those people were hacked: The Post specifically stated that it is unclear who put those names there, why, or how many of the phones were targeted other than the 37 for which they were able to find forensic evidence.

“But reporters were able to identify more than 1,000 people spanning more than 50 countries through research and interviews on four continents: several Arab royal family members, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists, and more than 600 politicians and government officials,” the outlet continued.

NSO Group Denies Allegations, Again 

While the consortium’s reports are highly significant, they do not mark the first time that NSO Group has faced scrutiny for how its technology is used. For years, the company has been repeatedly accused of selling its technology to authoritarian governments.

NSO, for its part, has continuously said Pegasus is only sold to authorized governments and used exclusively to help solve crimes, combat terrorism, and bring criminals to justice. The firm reiterated those claims in a statement responding to the report, denying what it called “false allegations,” arguing that the information has “no factual basis.”

“In fact, these allegations are so outrageous and far from reality, that NSO is considering a defamation lawsuit,” it said.

The company also denied its technology was “associated in any way” with Khashoggi’s murder, arguing that its products have helped break up trafficking rings, locate people and kidnapped children, and prevent drone attacks.

“Simply put, NSO Group is on a life-saving mission, and the company will faithfully execute this mission undeterred, despite any and all continued attempts to discredit it on false grounds,” the statement concluded.

Still, media outlets in the consortium continued on Monday to steadily release more and more reports about how the software was used in specific countries.

In a statement, Amnesty International, which also worked on the project, said the media partners will continue to run more stories over the next week “exposing details of how world leaders, politicians, human rights activists, and journalists have been selected as potential targets of this spyware.”

See what others are saying: (Amnesty International) (The Washington Post) (The Guardian)

International

Gang That Kidnapped American and Canadian Missionaries in Haiti Seeks $17 Million Ransom

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The incident has fueled calls for the government to take action against gangs, which control many territories in the country and have repeatedly carried out large-scale abductions for ransom


Missionary Abduction

The gang that abducted 17 American and Canadian missionaries in Haiti on Saturday is demanding $17 million for their safe release, Haitian officials said Monday.

The group, which consists of one Canadian and 16 Americans, are all part of Christian Aid Ministries, an Amish and Mennonite charity based out of Ohio with a long history of working in Haiti.

While on their way to visit an orphanage in Croix des Bouquets, a suburb of the capital Port-au-Prince, the group’s bus was stopped at gunpoint by the 400 Mawozo gang. The gang is known for being one the most dangerous in the area, reportedly having about 150 members.

Multiple outlets, including CNN and Reuters, report that during the gang’s confrontation with the missionaries some victims managed to get messages out to associates to let them know what was going on. One even managed to drop a pin location on his mobile phone, helping authorities get a better idea of where exactly this happened.

By 4:53 p.m on Saturday, the kidnappers contacted Christian Aid Ministries to make their steep demands. According to authorities, the request is a noticeable jump from the thousands to tens of thousands the gang typically asks for.

Lack of Government Control

While Haitian authorities are involved in the investigation to free the missionaries, they actually have little power in the area. Croix des Bouquets is largely out of the government’s control and is instead run by 400 Mawozo. Government authority being replaced by gang activity isn’t uncommon in Haiti, and in some places, government control is almost completely lacking. This was highlighted on Sunday when Prime Minister Ariel Henry was forced to turn back from a wreath-laying ceremony at the grave of revolutionary war hero Jean-Jacques Dessalines due to its placement in gang territory.

The issue makes recovering the missionaries far more complex, but Haitian authorities aren’t alone. The FBI has been involved in the investigation and is continuing to help Haitian authorities.

“The FBI is part of a coordinated US government effort to get the Americans involved to safety. Due to operational considerations, no further information is available at this time,” The agency said in a statement to Reuters.

Reports indicate that the hostages are being held in some kind of safe house for the gang. Currently, no one is believed to be physically hurt. The gang has warned against harming the hostages, although according to a Haitian security forces member who spoke with CNN, the group didn’t seem too worried about those threats.

Haitians Call for Changes

Abductions in Haiti have always been an issue, but the problem has become particularly bad lately. In 2020, the Haitian National Police reported 234 kidnappings. In the first eight months of this year, there have been at least 328.

Some organizations claim that number is actually low. In fact, the Center for Analysis and Research for Human Rights reported that at least 600 people have been abducted this year. The center said that much of the increase was caused by 400 Mawozo, who have figured out that kidnapping busloads of people is more profitable than just taking individuals.

The issue is so prolific that just before the kidnapping on Saturday, a Haitian transportation union called for an indefinite strike starting Monday, with its president further justifying the move in a written statement a day later.

“We call on the government to put an end to the kidnappings and provide us safety or for them to resign immediately. We are the most victims; the transportation sector is an easy target for kidnappers all over the country,” Union President Méhu Changeux wrote. “We lost many members to the insecurity and dozens of members have been kidnapped. The latest tragedy of the kidnapping of the American missionaries shows no one is safe in this country.” 

Since Monday, many parts of the country have come to a standstill amid the strike, putting increased pressure on a government with little resources to handle the underlying cause of discontent: gang activity and government instability.

See what others are saying: (CNN) (The New York Times) (Associated Press)

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5 Dead, 2 Injured After Bow and Arrow Attack in Norway

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Police have called the incident a terror attack, though exact details regarding the suspect’s motives remain unclear.


Super Market Attack

The Norwegian town of Kongsberg is reeling from a deadly incident at Coop Extra supermarket on Wednesday that police are treating as “an act of terrorism.”

Shortly before 6 p.m., a 37-year old Danish man entered the market, armed with a bow and arrow, along with other weapons. He then began firing at those inside the building.

Authorities quickly responded and were on the scene within five minutes. Despite a police confrontation with the suspect, the attack continued. Four women and one man were ultimately killed while two others were left injured.

The suspect initially avoided arrest after managing to flee the scene. Police Chief Ole Bredrup Sæverud told reporters Thursday that it took 35 minutes to catch the attacker.

Unclear Motives

While police described the incident as a terror attack, they refused to specify a motive. Officials did hint that the rampage might have been religiously motivated by revealing that police had previously been in contact with the suspect due to his conversion to Islam and possible connections to radical content and teachings. Still, Sæverud clarified that the perpetrator hadn’t been actively investigated at all in 2021.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who was just hours away from leaving office after she was ousted in recent elections, described reports of the scene as “horrifying” on Wednesday. Incoming Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre said in a Facebook post from Thursday morning that the attack was a “cruel and brutal act.”

Norway’s King Harald expressed his sympathies to the mayor of Kongs-berg, telling the country, “We sympathize with the relatives and injured in the grief and despair.” 

And we think of all those affected in Kongs-berg who have experienced that their safe local environment suddenly became a dangerous place. It shakes us all when horrible things happen near us, when you least expect it, in the middle of everyday life on the open street.”

Attacks of this nature are rare in Norway. In 2019, a right-wing gunman tried to enter a mosque before being overpowered and hitting no one. Wednesday’s attack is the most deadly since July 2011, when a far-right extremist killed 77 people at a Labour party summer camp.

Editor’s Note: At Rogue Rocket, we make it a point to not include the names and pictures of mass murderers or suspected mass murderers who may have been seeking attention or infamy. Therefore, we will not be linking to other sources, as they may contain these details.

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Protests Erupt in Italy Over World’s Toughest Vaccine Mandate

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The violence is believed to have been instigated by far-right groups that oppose COVID-19 vaccines and other pandemic-related safety measures.


Green Pass Pushback

Demonstrators gathered in Rome over the weekend to protest against Italy’s plans to require a coronavirus “Green Pass” for all workers starting Oct. 15.

The Green Pass is a European Union initiative that shows whether someone is vaccinated, has recovered from COVID-19 in the past six months, or has received a negative COVID test in the past 48 hours.

Since August, Italy has required the pass for entry at restaurants and use of long-distance trains, along with nearly every other activity that involves interaction with others or use of a public space. Now, the pass will be required to enter a workplace, which critics argue is particularly harsh.

Individuals who can’t produce a valid Green Pass will be suspended without pay, making it the most extreme of any COVID-19 mandate in the world.

The weekend protests started out peaceful, with people chanting “Liberta,” which means freedom. However, the scene turned violent by Saturday when a group of protesters affiliated with the far-right Forza Nuova party decided to storm the headquarters of the CGIL, Italy’s biggest and oldest labor union.

Protesters then marched towards the Prime Minister’s office, prompting police to respond with anti-riot measures like tear gas, water cannons, and shield charges.

It’s unclear how many protesters were hurt in the ongoing fighting, but dozen of police officers were reportedly hurt in the scuffle. By Sunday evening. at least 12 protesters were arrested, many of who are members of Forza Nuova, including its leader Roberto Fiore. Authorities also indicated in a press conference on Monday that it had identified at least 600 other people who took part in illegal activities during the demonstrations.

Fiore was unapologetic about the rioting, and Forza Nuova said in a statement, “The popular revolution will not stop, with or without us, until the Green Pass is definitively withdrawn. Saturday was a watershed between the old and the new. The people decided to raise the level of the clash.”

Fascist Banning

Saturday’s events have led many of the country’s largest political parties, including the 5Star Movement and the Democratic Paty, to support a motion calling for Nuova Forza and similar groups to be dismantled in line with a constitutional provision from 1952 that bans fascists parties.

While that motion is still going through the legislative process, prosecutors have already seized the group’s website in line with a 1988 law that bans inciting violence through public communications.

The events [on Saturday] take us back to the darkest and most dramatic moments of our history and they are an extremely serious and unacceptable attack on democracy,” Valeria Fedeli, a senator with the center-left Democratic Party, said on Monday.

The violence from the weekend may make it seem like a sizeable chunk of Italians are against the vaccine; however, over 70% of all Italians are already vaccinated, making it one of the highest rates in the world.

According to polling from the summer, most Italians think the new rules will help in the long run and prevent another catastrophe like last year when the country ran out of room to bury the dead due to the number of deaths caused by COVID-19.

See what others are saying: (CBS News) (NPR) (Politico)

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