A new report has revealed that Nigeria’s Defense Intelligence Agency has acquired Israeli spyware to monitor phone calls and text messages of dissidents and other citizens.
According to the report by the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab, which researches digital surveillance, security, privacy and accountability, Israeli spyware provider Circles has been helping state security apparatuses across 25 countries, including Nigeria, to spy on the communications of opposition figures, activists, journalists and other citizens.
The report — titled Running in Circles: Uncovering the Clients of Cyber-espionage Firm Circles — said Circles is a sister company of Tel Aviv-based NSO Group, whose flagship Pegasus spyware has helped government spies break into the smartphone of about 1,400 people across four continents, take control of their phones, its cameras and microphones, and mine the user’s personal data.
The Citizen Lab report also said the technique used by the Circles snooping tech is known as Signaling System 7 (SS7) exploitation and allows one mobile network to connect with another.
“Unlike NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware, the SS7 mechanism by which Circles’ product reportedly operates does not have an obvious signature on a target’s phone,” explained the report.
The report further noted that at least two entities in Nigeria have deployed Circles’ product.
“One system may be operated by the same entity as one of the Nigerian customers of the FinFisher spyware that we detected in December 2014,” it said.
“The other client appears to be the Nigerian Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), as its firewall IPs are in AS37258, a block of IP addresses registered to “HQ Defense Intelligence Agency Asokoro, Nigeria, Abuja,” the report added.
It cited an earlier investigation by online newspaper Premium Times, which said the governors of two Nigerian states had purchased systems from Circles to spy on dissidents.
“In Delta State, Premium Times reports that the system was installed … and operated by employees of the governor, rather than police,” the report said.
“In Bayelsa State, the governor reportedly used the Circles system to spy on his opponent in an election, as well as his opponent’s wife and aides,” the report said. “The investigation also found that the two Circles systems were imported without the proper authorizations from Nigeria’s Office of the National Security Adviser.”
Earlier this year, an Israeli court turned down a request to strip the NSO Group of its export license over the suspected use of the company’s technology to target journalists and dissidents worldwide.
The case, brought by Amnesty International in January, called on the court to prevent NSO from selling its technology abroad, especially to repressive governments.
The Israeli company’s cellphone-hacking software, Pegasus, has been linked to political surveillance in Mexico, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to Citizen Lab.
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