The phones of about a dozen journalists, NGO workers and Armenian officials were hacked by Pegasus spyware during the conflict with Azerbaijan, according to a report released Thursday by Access Now.
The software, designed by the Israeli company NSO Group, can control a smartphone and remotely access data, microphone and camera.
According to the non-governmental organization that defends the rights of Internet users, this is the first documented use of Pegasus in an international military conflict.
Armenia and Azerbaijan, the two former Soviet republics, fought battles over control of the disputed Nagorno-Karabakh region in two wars, one in the 1990s and the other in 2020.
Despite the cease-fire sponsored by Moscow, clashes regularly occur on the borders between the two countries.
An Access Now investigation, conducted in collaboration with NGOs and other research groups, confirmed that the program targeted 12 people between October 2020 and December 2022.
They include Armenian human rights official Kristin Grigoryan, several journalists from Radio Free Europe and a representative of the United Nations.
Anna Nagdalyan, spokeswoman for the Armenian Foreign Ministry, during the conflict between the two targets. And Apple warned her in 2021 that her phone might be hacked.
“For the first time, I felt vulnerable and worried about the safety of my personal and professional information,” she told AFP.
Access Now said it was not sure who carried out the spying, because both Armenia and Azerbaijan have deployed surveillance systems in the past.
“Although the secretive nature (of these technologies) means that there are not always clear effects that lead to a specific destination, facts and precedents point to the Azerbaijani authorities,” Julio Coppi, an official with the non-governmental organization, told AFP.
The organization considers it necessary to stop selling such software as long as it does not comply with international law.
“Providing Pegasus spyware to the authorities of either country in the context of a violent conflict carries a significant risk of contributing to and facilitating serious human rights abuses and even war crimes,” it wrote in its report.
Several lawsuits have been filed against “NSO Group”, especially by Apple and other companies.
In July 2021, an investigation revealed a list of more than 50,000 names that had been spied on through the Pegasus system, including heads of state.