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Jordan: Journalists, lawyers and activists targeted by Pegasus spyware

Investigation finds at least 35, including many involved in sensitive political issues, hacked in 'staggeringly widespread' use of Israeli-made spyware
Screenshot of what Access Now says was a sophisticated social engineering attack in which attacker impersonated a journalist from The Cradle media outlet to get access to victim (Access Now)

Human rights lawyers, political activists and journalists are among at least 35 people targeted in Jordan with Pegasus spyware since 2019, according to a new forensic investigation.

Digital rights organisation Access Now said its joint investigation with the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto revealed the "staggeringly widespread" use of the spyware against a backdrop of escalating crackdowns on civic space in the kingdom.

"We believe this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the use of Pegasus spyware in Jordan," the organisation said in its report released on Thursday. "The true number of victims is likely much higher."

Made by the Israeli company NSO Group, Pegasus turns phones into military-grade surveillance devices and is alleged in recent years to have been used by foreign governments against activists, journalists and politicians.

The report says many of the victims worked or reported on sensitive political issues including the 2019 nationwide teachers' strike and subsquent dissolution of the teachers' union and the Pandora Papers and Suisse Secrets leaks.

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Others were Palestinian activists based in Jordan who lead public campaigns denouncing the Israeli occupation and Jordan's normalisation deal with Israel, investigators found.

Among those targeted were five human rights lawyers who are members of the National Forum for the Defense of Freedoms which provides pro-bono support to prisoners, labour unions and political parties in Jordan.

'We believe this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the use of Pegasus spyware in Jordan'

- Access Now

Investigators said Hala Ahed, one of the lawyers who has been the subject of a broader campaign of harassment over her activism, was targeted with Pegasus twice, once in 2021 and again in 2023.

Journalists made up the majority of those hacked. They include Rana Sabbagh and Lara Dihmis, reporters with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, and Daoud Kuttab, a columnist and director-general of Community Media Network, all of whom were targeted multiple times, the report says. 

Non-profit organisation representatives, including two Jordan-based staff members of Human Rights Watch (HRW), were also targeted, one just two weeks after HRW published a damning report on increasing government repression in Jordan.

Lama Fakih, HRW's Middle East and North Africa director who has previously been targeted with Pegasus, said the sweeping targeting in Jordan was "a stark reminder of the urgent need to safeguard digital rights and privacy".

The report released on Thursday does not identify who is suspected in the targeting of the Jordanians.

A 2022 joint investigation from Front Line Defenders and Citizen Lab into the hacking of Jordanian human rights defenders, journalists and lawyers using Pegasus identified two operators believed to be "likely agencies of the Jordanian government".

In response to Thursday's report, NSO told The Guardian that it "complied with all laws and regulations and sold its products only to vetted intelligence and law enforcement agencies".

Middle East Eye reached out to the Jordanian embassy in the UK for comment but did not receive a response by time of publication.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

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