Guardian: Serbian government critics targeted with spyware

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A London daily newspaper said on Tuesday that critics of Serbia’s government were targeted with spyware a few months after similar attacks were confirmed on Russian journalists critical of official Moscow.

The Guardian said that the use of military-grade spyware was confirmed by researchers at Access Now, the Share Foundation in Serbia, the Citizen Lab at the Munk School at the University of Toronto, and Amnesty International. It said that the spyware was used to target Apple iPhones used by two unnamed individuals who documented the country’s endemic corruption.

The attempted hacking failed. The two individuals were alerted to the attack by Apple which said that they may have been targeted by a state-sponsored actor which was later confirmed after investigations by researchers.

The daily said the findings come just months after researchers revealed that Russian journalists living in the European Union who are critical of President Vladamir Putin had also been targeted with spyware.

The Guardian quoted Natalia Krapiva, tech-legal counsel at Access Now, who said: “These findings are extremely worrying for the rule of law and democracy in Serbia. Uncontrolled use of commercial spyware is poison not only for human rights, but also security and democratic institutions in any country.”

The researchers in the Serbian case could not definitively confirm what kind of spyware was used because available forensic indicators were limited. “We aren’t attributing these attacks to a particular operator at this time, but we note that a decade of Citizen Lab investigations have found that Serbia is a regular customer for mercenary spyware and other commercial surveillance technologies,” said John Scott-Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab.

While the researchers could not definitively attribute the attempted attacks in Serbia to a specific spyware, the attempted hacks are likely to renew focus on past findings involving covert data collection and surveillance by Serbia’s Security Information Agency (BIA). One of the people targeted in Serbia told the daily that this was an attempt at intimidation or find something compromising.

The Serbian government did not respond to requests for comment, the Guardian said.