Jordanian officials want investigation into hacking of their cellphones

The cellphones of nearly 200 Jordanians were discovered to have been infiltrated by an Israeli company’s spyware

 A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021 (photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)
A man walks past the logo of Israeli cyber firm NSO Group at one of its branches in the Arava Desert, southern Israel July 22, 2021
(photo credit: REUTERS/AMIR COHEN)

A senior Jordanian official has called on his government to create a committee to investigate hacking that has affected the cellphones of nearly 200 Jordanian activists, journalists, human rights defenders, and even government officials.

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Senator Mustafa Hamarneh, a member of Jordan’s elite upper house – often called the King’s Council because its members are appointed by the palace, and a former director of the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies, told The Media Line that the issue is worrisome and answers are needed. 

“What is needed is an investigative committee that can find ways to defend our basic human rights and our privacy, which is guaranteed by the constitution. The committee should research this issue now that it has become public knowledge. The government can ask Apple for the list and what they know about this hacking. These are questions that need to be answered,” he said.

Hamarneh appears to dismiss any domestic role in the hacking. “I am told that the Jordanian government has never bought this Pegasus software and the fact that the royal court and the Olympic committee’s phones were hacked means that this is most likely an outside effort that probably even included His Majesty’s phone,” Hamarneh said, referring to the Israeli cybersecurity company NSO’s Pegasus spyware that reportedly has been used by certain governments around the world to spy on human rights activists, politicians and journalists.

The Jordanian public has been abuzz with the story after the popular website Ammon News, a private news agency and alternative news body based in Amman, revealed that among the 80,000 phones that were hacked by Pegasus were 200 Jordanian phones. 

JORDAN’S KING ABDULLAH II listens during a meeting in Amman in May. (credit: ALEX BRANDON/POOL VIA REUTERS)JORDAN’S KING ABDULLAH II listens during a meeting in Amman in May. (credit: ALEX BRANDON/POOL VIA REUTERS)

Samir Hiari, the publisher of Ammon News, told the Media Line that his journalists began looking into the issue after being contacted by an investigative journalist from a major international news agency.  He said that his team was able to determine from sources that “a little bit less than 200 – among them royal court and Olympic committee members and activists – were victims of the hacking, which included scrapping everything on their phones, including WhatsApp content, messages, photos, videos, and text messages.”

Hamarneh told The Media Line that he ignored a warning that came to him from Apple about a potential security breach last November but paid attention to the breach when contacted by a Reuters journalist who was doing a report on the subject. 

“I received a note from Apple on November 11, 2021 and I didn’t pay attention because I have always known that I may be listened to. Then I got a call from an investigative reporter and he said that my phone has been consistently hacked and that they took my photos and WhatsApp and contact list by operating my mic and camera,” he said.

Hamarneh said that the reporter informed him that couldn’t find a pattern in which Jordanian officials were hacked. “He said ‘you are the only one that is a prominent politician’ and that the list included a handful of human rights lawyers, bank officials, owners of companies, the Olympic committee, and even the royal court,” Hamarneh said.

Deema Alam Farraj, a social media activist who goes by the handle @deema22 and has 419,000 followers on Twitter, told The Media Line that she was also contacted by Apple about a potential security breach and paid little attention to the alert at the time. 

“I received the warnings from Apple and I didn’t pay attention to it. They told us that there was a problem and asked to reset the phone completely. Later Reuters called me and they said ‘your name is listed’ and this is what was shocking. What was strange is that I never thought someone would waste time, money and effort to hack my phone,” she said.  

Farraj complained that what upset her the most is the broad amount information that was taken from her phone “My privacy was broken. I have nothing dangerous, but my personal issues, photos, videos and contacts were all hacked,” she said. “My rights were violated and I don’t know what to do. I don’t want people I talk to getting in trouble. This act of hacking my phone is totally unethical.”

The social media activist said that the reason she announced that she was hacked is to protect herself even though she does not know who is behind it.  

“I hope that the government of Jordan defends me and all other citizens of our country. It was an unethical act and if you have a problem with anyone this is not the way to settle your differences. My biggest problem is that I don’t know who did this and who is against me. If I knew I would be at comfort and would know who is my enemy and would deal with it,” she said.