Dozens of journalists at Al-Jazeera, the Qatari state-owned media company, have been targeted by advanced spyware in an attack likely linked to the governments of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, a cybersecurity watchdog reported. Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto said it traced malware that infected the personal phones of 36 journalists, producers, anchors and executives at Al-Jazeera back to the Israel-based NSO Group, which has been widely condemned for selling spyware to repressive governments. Most unnerving to the investigators was that iMessages were infecting targeted phones without the users taking any action - what’s known as a zero-click vulnerability. Through push notifications alone, the malware instructed the phones to upload their content to servers linked to the NSO Group, Citizen Lab said, turning journalists’ iPhones into powerful surveillance tools without even luring users to click on suspicious links or threatening texts. The coordinated attacks on Qatari-funded Al-Jazeera, which Citizen Lab described as the largest concentration of phone hacks targeting a single organisation, occurred in July, just weeks before the Trump administration announced the normalisation of ties between Israel and the UAE, the archival to Qatar. The breakthrough deal took public what had been a long-secret alliance. Analysts say normalisation likely will lead to stronger cooperation in digital surveillance between Israel and Persian Gulf sheikhdoms. Spyware trade grows amid claims that activists, Amazon CEO Bezos targeted Apple said it was aware of the Citizen Lab report and said the latest version of its mobile operating system, iOS 14, “delivered new protections against these kinds of attacks”. It sought to reassure users that NSO doesn’t target the average iPhone owner, but rather sells its software to foreign governments to target a limited group. Apple has not been able to independently verify Citizen Lab’s analysis. Citizen Lab, which has been tracking NSO spyware for four years, tied the attacks “with medium confidence” to Emirati and Saudi governments, based on their past targeting of dissidents at home and abroad with the same spyware. The two countries are embroiled in a bitter geopolitical dispute with Qatar in which hacking and cyber surveillance have increasingly become favoured tools. In 2017, the two Gulf nations and their allies imposed a blockade on Qatar over its alleged support for extremist groups, a charge Doha denies. The UAE and Saudi Arabia served the tiny country with a list of demands, among them shutting down its influential Arabic-language TV network, which the UAE and Saudi Arabia see as promoting a political agenda at odds with their own. The feud continues to fester, although officials recently have made encouraging signs that a resolution may be within reach. Emirati and Saudi authorities did not respond to requests for comment. The NSO Group cast doubt on Citizen Lab’s accusations in a statement but said it was “unable to comment on a report that we have not yet seen”. The firm said it provides technology for the sole purpose of enabling “governmental law enforcement agencies to tackle serious organised crime and counterterrorism”. WhatsApp sues Israeli firm NSO for ‘helping spies hack phones with video calls’ Prior to Sunday’s report, NSO’s spyware has repeatedly been found deployed to hack journalists, lawyers, human rights defenders and dissidents. Most notably, the spyware was implicated in the gruesome killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in 2018 and whose body has never been found. Several alleged targets of the spyware, including a close friend of Khashoggi and several Mexican civil society figures, sued NSO in an Israeli court over the hacking. The NSO Group’s surveillance software, known as Pegasus, is designed to bypass detection and mask its activity. The malware infiltrates phones to vacuum up personal and location data and surreptitiously control the smartphone’s microphones and cameras, allowing hackers to spy on reporters’ face-to-face meetings with sources. Last year, WhatsApp and its parent company Facebook filed an unprecedented lawsuit against the NSO Group, accusing the Israeli firm of targeting some 1,400 users of its encrypted messaging service with highly sophisticated spyware through missed calls. Earlier this month, an Al-Jazeera anchor filed another lawsuit in the US, alleging that the NSO Group hacked her phone through WhatsApp over her reporting on Saudi Arabia’s powerful Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.