YEREVAN — About two dozen citizens of Armenia, including an opposition politician and a government official, have so far reported smartphone alerts about being exposed to state-sponsored hacking through Pegasus, a spyware developed by a private Israel-based firm.
Armenian information security specialists say they are currently working to find out the exact scope of potential victims of spyware targeting in the country.
Media expert Arthur Papyan has confirmed that the spyware has so far targeted key figures both from the opposition and the government.
NSO Group’s Pegasus software infects iPhones and Android devices to enable operators to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones and cameras.
“Former and current civil servants [have been targeted]. And all of them are people who know state secrets and other valuable information and have some political influence,” Papyan said.
“As far as I understand, in all probability, it is NSO Group itself that targets by order, hacks phones and then provides a way to see the data, to get access to it,” Papyan said.
Artur Vanetsyan, the leader of the opposition Pativ Unem faction in parliament, said on Wednesday that he was alerted by Apple about being targeted through Pegasus.
Vanetsian, who served as director of Armenia’s National Security Service in 2018-19, published a screenshot of the alert message warning him about a possible state-sponsored spyware targeting. The message does not mention what country’s government may have ordered that attack.
On the one hand, Vanetsian claims that the current Armenian government has tried to wiretap him, and on the other hand, he does not rule out the possibility of the Azerbaijani government sponsoring the hacking attack against him.
“We cannot rule out or confirm it at this moment,” he said. “A short while ago another opposition lawmaker approached me in parliament and said that he had received the same alert earlier today,” Vanetsyan said.
High-Tech Industry Minister Vahagn Khachaturyan also confirmed to media on Thursday that he had received a similar alert from Apple. He denied that the Armenian government may be behind the spyware targeting attacks.
“We have assessed what happened to me as to a citizen and what happened to other people around me as an attack or attempted attack against the security of certain citizens of the Republic of Armenia or perhaps even government bodies,” the minister said.
Tech giant Apple on Tuesday filed a lawsuit against NSO Group, seeking a permanent injunction to ban the Israeli company from using any Apple software, services or devices. Apple admitted that a small number of its users may have been targeted by an NSO Group exploit to install Pegasus on Apple devices.
Last summer international investigative journalists found out that at least ten countries’ special services had used the Pegasus program developed by NSO Group to spy on politicians, journalists and activists. Azerbaijan is also on that list. There was no mention of Armenia at that time.