The New-York based rights groups said Lama Fakih, HRW’s Crisis and Conflict director who heads up the Beirut office, was targeted with Pegasus spyware five times between April and August 2021.
Ms Fakih’s work includes exposing rights abuses in armed conflict, unrest and humanitarian disasters in countries ranging from Syria and Israel to Myanmar and Ethiopia.
This "may have attracted the attention of various governments, including some that are suspected NSO clients", the rights group said.
It added that the software is surreptitiously introduced on people’s mobile phones without them noticing at all. Once Pegasus is on the device, the client is able to turn it into a powerful surveillance tool by gaining complete access to its camera, calls, media, microphone, email, text messages.
The news about HRW came just a day after Canadian NGO Citizen Lab said that at least five Poles - all critics of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party — were hacked with NSO’s Pegasus. Last week Israel’s attorney general ordered an investigation into police surveillance tactics amid reports that Pegasus had been improperly used domestically.
“Governments are using NSO Group’s spyware to monitor and silence human rights defenders, journalists, and others who expose abuse,” said Deborah Brown, HRW’s senior digital rights researcher and advocate.
“That it has been allowed to operate with impunity in the face of overwhelming evidence of abuse, not only undermines efforts by journalists and human rights groups to hold powerful actors to account, but also puts the people they are trying to protect in grave danger.”
Ms Fakih, who is a dual US-Lebanese citizen said it was “no accident” that governments were using spyware to target activists and journalists, “the very people who uncover their abusive practices”.
“They seem to believe that by doing so, they can consolidate power, muzzle dissent, and protect their manipulation of facts,” she said.
In previous interviews with The Independent, senior NSO employees said Pegasus was sold to “carefully vetted government entities” and the company had shut down customers in the past whose use of the product raised human rights concerns.
But this has done little to assuage fears.
In November, in a huge blow to the firm’s export prospects, the US Commerce Department blacklisted the company, saying it sold spyware to foreign governments which then used the equipment to target government officials, journalists and others.
Apple has also sued NSO, saying it had violated American laws by breaking into the software installed on iPhones.
NSO has additionally faced either legal action or criticism from Microsoft Corp, Facebook parent Meta Platforms Inc, Google parent Alphabet Inc and Cisco Systems Inc.
On Tuesday the company chairman Asher Levey quit but denied his departure was linked to lawsuits or negative media coverage.
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