LONDON (AP) – In the last two months, mysterious agents have summoned two cyber security researchers to meetings in luxury hotels. They have apparently tried to discredit their research on an Israeli company that manufactures smartphone hacking technology used by some governments to spy on their citizens. . The Associated Press has been informed of similar acts of infiltration targeting at least four other people who have raised questions about the use of spyware by Israeli society.
The other four targets of the agents include three lawyers involved in lawsuits in Israel and Cyprus alleging that the company, the NSO Group, had sold its spyware to governments with dubious human rights records. The fourth is a Londonreporter at the base who covered the dispute. Two of them – the journalist and a lawyer based in Cyprus – were secretly registered to meet the undercover agents; Images of these images were broadcast on Israeli television at a time when the AP was preparing to publish this story.
The six targeted people believed that the agents were part of a coordinated effort to discredit them.
"There is someone who is really interested in sabotaging the case," said one of the goals, Mazen Masri, who teaches at City University London and advises the lawyer plaintiffs in the case Israel.
Masri said agents "search for dirt and irrelevant information about the people involved."
The details of these secret efforts offer insight into the sometimes obscure world of private investigators, including some agents who go beyond simply gathering information and act more like provocateurs. The targets told the PA that the secret agents had tried to incite them to do racist and anti-terrorist acts.Israel comments or revealing sensitive information about their work in the prosecution.
The OSN has previously stated that it had nothing to do with the infiltration efforts "neither directly nor indirectly". He did not return repeated messages regarding the new targets identified by the AP. The US private equity firm Francisco Partners, which owns NSO, has not sent back any message from AP asking for comment.
The activities of the undercover agents may never have been made public without the help of two researchers working for Citizen Lab, an Internet-based surveillance group based at the University of Toronto's Munk School.
In December, one of the researchers, John Scott-Railton, realized that a colleague had been brought in to meet an agent at a Toronto hotel and then asked about his work on NSO. When a second agent, Michel Lambert, calling himself, approached Scott-Railton to arrange a similar meeting at the Peninsula Hotel at New YorkScott-Railton has developed an undercover operation inviting AP reporters to stop lunch and record the video encounter.
The story has attracted a lot of attention in Israel. In a few days, Israel's investigative television show Uvda and the New York Times identified Lambert as Aharon Almog-Assouline, a former Israeli security official living in the soft toy Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon.
Scott-Railton and the PA then determined that the infiltration efforts went well beyond Citizen Lab.
Hours after the story was published, Masri wrote to the PA to tell him that he and Alaa Mahajna, who is suing NSO Israel, had spent weeks parrying the offers of two wealthy executives who had contacted them with lucrative job offers and insistent demands to meet at London.
"We were on guard and did not take the bait," wrote Masri.
Masri's revelation sparked a host of messages related to disputes involving NSOs. Masri and Scott-Railton claim to have discovered that Christiana Markou, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs in a lawsuit related to NSO affiliates in the US Cyprushad been transported to London for a strange encounter with someone who claimed to be a Hong Kong-based investor. Around the same time, Masri discovered that a journalist who had written about NSO had also been invited twice to a London hotel and questioned about his reports.
"Things are getting more interesting," Masri wrote as the episodes unfolded.
The attempt to trap Alaa Mahajna, the lead lawyer in the Israeli pursuit, was an example.
On November 26, he heard a man say that he called Marwan Al Haj and described him as a partner in a Swedish wealth management company called Lyndon Partners. Al Haj presented to Mahajna an intriguing proposition. Al Haj stated that one of his clients, an extremely wealthy man with family ties to the Middle East, needed legal assistance to recover family lands seized by Jewish settlers as a result of the Arab-Israeli war of 1967.
"I believe you can be a good choice for this difficult task," wrote Al Haj.
The request made sense. As a Jerusalem-based human rights lawyer, Mahajna defended Palestinian activists and others who were angry with the Israeli government. But Mahajna became suspicious as he was trying to learn more about the case. Al Haj was discreet about her client and did not seem willing to provide any paperwork, Mahajna told AP.
"Not even the basic material," said Mahajna. "Usually people flood you with documents and stories."
Mahajna said he was worried when Al Haj suddenly offered him an all expenses paid trip to London; no one had even asked him if the case had any hope of success.
"At one point, it was very clear that it was not a genuine approach," said Mahajna.
Ten days later, Masri, the legal adviser in the lawsuit filed by Israel, received an email suggesting he sit on the advisory board of a Zurich-based company called APOL Consulting.
Masri became skeptical after consulting the company's website. Since consulting companies typically market intelligence and skills to their employees, Masri expects his site to display prominently the names, portraits and qualifications of his staff.
"Here, there was not even the name of a human," he said.
When Masri refused to sit on the APOL board, the representative who had contacted him – a man named Cristian Ortega – asked Masri to see him at London anyway.
"I would consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to meet you in person for a friendly conversation," Ortega said in an email on Jan. 7. "No commitment, of course."
Masri said that in the meantime, he and Mahajna had come to believe that Ortega and Al Haj were fictions and that their societies were imaginary.
But they still did not know how secret operations were widespread.
The undercover agents have moved a little further with Christiana Markou, the lawyer who is pursuing Cypriot affair against entities affiliated with the NSO.
His complaint, like Mahajna, relies heavily on Citizen Lab reports that NSO spyware was used to crack the phones of Mexican activists and journalists who are the plaintiffs in both cases.
Markou told AP that she was approached by email on December 21st by a man who introduced himself as Olivier Duffet, a partner at ENE Investments, based in Hong Kong.
Duffet was apparently interested in inviting Markou – a leading lawyer in the field of data protection and privacy – Cyprus – give a lecture at a conference. Markou said that she had proposed to discuss the conference on Skype, but he insisted on a meeting in person at London, finally taking her, laying her in a luxury hotel and chatting for a little over an hour.
The discussion focused on the proposed conference – but then, Duffet suddenly switched to the ONS case, asking if she felt the lawsuit was winnable and who was funding it.
Markou stated that she "had given incorrect answers or had expressly refused to answer" because she had found her questions suspicious.
Yet another target, Eyad Hamid, a LondonA UK-based journalist who wrote an article about NSO, said that he had also been invited on two occasions to a London hotel to discuss his coverage of Israeli society.
The alleged company used in the operation that targeted it was Mertens-Giraud Partners Management, a wealth management company established in Brussels.
Neither MGP – nor any of the other companies – really existed. AP searches in the Orbis database of some 300 million companies, company registries and trademark filings have revealed no trace of a Swiss company called APOL, from a Swedish company called Lyndon Partners, from a Belgian company called Mertens-Giraud or from a Hong Kong-based company. company named ENE Investments. The local telephone directories did not contain the names of a Zurich-based man, Cristian Ortega, a Hong Kong-based man, Olivier Duffet, or anyone in Sweden named Marwan Al Haj.
APOL was in no doubt when the PA visited its supposed office, not far from Zurich Central Station; Tenants said they never heard of the company. It was the same story in Hong Kong. A representative of the central building management, allegedly ENE Investments, said he knew nothing about the company. An AP reporter was unable to speak to anyone in the so-called office of Mertens-Giraud, located in Brussels, rue des Poissoniers; the entire building was closed for renovation work.
In the modern office building of downtown Stockholm, where Lyndon Partners claimed to have its headquarters, the head of the service, Elias Broberger, said that he could find no trace of the management company heritage.
"It's stated that they're here," Broberger said while reviewing Lyndon Partners' professional website. "But we do not have them in any of our systems: not in the reservation system; not the member system. We do not charge them; they do not charge us.
"I can not find them."
The people who hired the undercover agents remain unclear, but their operational and digital fingerprints suggest that they are related.
The six officers all started to approach their targets at about the same time with custom terrain. Their fake websites have followed the same patterns; all were hosted on Namecheap and many were auctioned from Go dad and used the Israeli Wix website design platform. The formatting of the websites was similar; in at least two cases – MGP and Lyndon Partners – the situation was the same. Even the electronic signatures of the agents were the same – consisting of three well-colored colored lines including a phone number, a web address and an email.
The LinkedIn pages of these agents were also similar, with men wearing sunglasses taken from far away, facing the camera or at unusual angles – a tactic sometimes used to thwart facial recognition algorithms.
Despite indications that undercover agents are all linked, there is no conclusive evidence of their use. An Israeli television channel, Channel 12, aired a report on Saturday claiming that an Israeli private investigative firm, Black Cube, was investigating issues related to the lawsuits against NSO. The TV channel secretly filmed footage of Cypriot lawyer Markou and the London reporter, Hamid, which corresponds to the description by the couple of their meetings with undercover agents.
The TV channel criticized NSO's prosecuting lawyers, and quoted OSN founder Shalev Hulio in an interview accusing Markou and his colleagues of prosecuting the lawsuits as a "public relations exercise".
NSO had previously denied hiring Black Cube, and Black Cube, in a letter to AP last month, said he was not involved in efforts to trick researchers into Citizen Lab. "Black Cube has nothing to do with these alleged events," says the letter, noting that no one represented the company.
Black Cube has a possible connection with Almog-Assouline, the man who held the hotel meeting about NSO at New York. During a long legal battle in Canada between two investment capital companies – Catalyst Capital and West Face Capital – a man involved in litigation said that he had acknowledged Almog-Assouline because he had been approached by the same operator under a different identity several years ago.
"I recognized the individual, up to his accent and his anecdotes," said the man, who requested anonymity, for fear of reprisal.
During the lawsuits, Black Cube accused shipping agents of meeting "various people" involved in the quarrel of private equity firms. But it is unclear whether other investigative firms have also done work related to the legal battle of the two companies.
Black Cube did not answer repeated questions to find out if he had ever used Almog-Assouline. Previously, the company had garnered international stigma for its independent work that protected the reputation of Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein.
He has refused to answer questions since.
When an AP reporter rang at the door of his apartment Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Hasharon A week ago, a woman who identified herself as being his wife said that he was not at home. When the reporter followed with a phone call to Almog-Assoulinehe said, "I have no interest in talking to you."
Aron Heller at Ramat Hasharon, IsraelDavid Keyton in Stockholm, Sweden, Jamey Keaten in Zurich, Vincent Yu in Hong Kong, Sylvain Plazy in Brussels, Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Meneloas Hadjicostis in Nicosia, Cyprus, contributed to this report.
Documents related to the infiltration operation: https://www.documentcloud.org/search/projectid:42174-Citizen-Lab-Lab-Undercover-Op
Raphael Satter can be contacted at: http://raphaelsatter.com
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