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 has now learned of similar undercover efforts targeting at least four other individuals 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، the 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.
"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.
Masri said the operatives were “looking for dirt and irrelevant information about people involved.
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 the AP 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 identified by the AP. American private equity firm Francisco Partners، which owns NSO، did not return a message from the AP 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، 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.
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.
"We were on our guard and did not take the bait،” Masri wrote.
Masri’s revelation prompted a flurry of messages to others tied to litigation involving NSO. Masri and Scott-Railton say they discovered that Christiana Markou، a lawyer representing plaintiffs in a related lawsuit against NSO-affiliated companies in Cyprus، had been flown to London for a strange meeting with someone who claimed to be a Hong Kong-based investor. Around the same time، Masri found out that a journalist who had written about NSO was also invited to a London hotel — twice — and questioned about his reporting.
"Things are getting more interesting،” Masri wrote as the episodes emerged.
Like Almog-Assouline، the undercover operative the AP exposed in New York، the covert agents who pursued the lawyers made a string of operational errors.