Four mobile phones from Palestine were infected with mobile spyware developed by a German firm, organizations say

BERLIN — Human rights groups that monitor monitoring of dissidents in the Middle East reported Saturday that four mobile phones from Palestine were infected with mobile spyware developed by German firm Pegasus.

“A number of Palestine-based human rights and social justice organizations have been affected by Pegasus and reported back to our reports to keep us informed,” said Catherine Lotrionte, co-director of B’Tselem, a Israeli human rights organization that monitors violations in the Palestinian territories.

Documents published in January by German journalist Sebastian Kann showed that Pegasus had offered spyware to Syria. The company was established in 2013 by Reinhard Plosch, a former director of the German Federal Intelligence Service.

While the existence of the Pegasus software was not confirmed by authorities, a German intelligence officer told German newspaper Die Welt that the agency was aware of the spyware.

“It’s not the first program which shows up on the internet with that sort of functionality,” said Andreas Schelenz, a spokesman for the foreign intelligence agency. “But I think the institution in question decided that information about it was not important, and I think the firms concerned could deal with them. We look for this sort of thing no more and no less.”

The Foreign Office of the European Union issued a statement, saying it was aware of the issue.

“We stand with civil society, media and other institutions in the region,” the statement said. “It is all the more important that they have full confidence in the protection of their data. We expect full transparency in this process and for all parties to take action to protect our partners’ information.”

The head of Israeli intelligence praised Plosch as a hero and urged European intelligence to adopt its methods.

Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, director of the Military Intelligence Directorate, said in a video, “He does not work with any government agency. He said he was in contract for making commercial products. When you are a global leader in it, you need to be proud and tell the world this is the innovation, the quality, the technology which defines you. There are solutions that lie in the realm of espionage and understanding.”

Kochavi praised Plosch as “an exceptional” intelligence officer who made major achievements “based on his moral strength and moral courage.”

Last month, we told you about a new data collection tool developed by a Russian firm called Vyrus, which shows up on the internet as “targeted election ads.” We said it could reveal who online users are corresponding with, the websites they visit and the countries they’re visiting, and that it could even use the user’s location to target ads at someone.

But what caught our attention most was the fact that Vyrus’ software was distributed across Europe.

Vyrus said the browser plug-in is used by major newspapers in France, Britain, the United States and elsewhere.

But here is where things get scary. The software, which appears to rely on what are essentially giant advertising cookies, could be collecting far more information than the company is letting on.

The large and influential Belgian daily newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws has some 1.4 million unique visitors per month.

Het Laatste Nieuws declined to comment on the new software when contacted by the Washington Post.

But other news sources have raised questions.

“We recognize that there are those who might assume that these cookies are but a pretext for spying on our readers, but we therefore stress that these cookies are not about to let us read your personal inbox or credit card,” wrote Sasha Stolzberg of the newsletter and site Policy Brief in March. “We are very clear about that. We have a very strict anti-spying and surveillance policy, and anyone who wished to spy on us or send us personal data would need to register with a company called What those who read our news would want to do with their information – that is, to use it as an advertising tool – is a purely free decision. We don’t want to have the code of secrecy that is usually associated with these types of cookies.”

(c) 2019 The Washington Post Writers Group

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