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Researchers Say they Found Spyware Used in War for the First Time

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Said Samvel Farmanyan, co-founder and host of an opposition television program in Armenia, “It is not only a clear violation of human rights, my rights of privacy and private communication, but it had [an] enormous psychological effect.”

Credit: Aziz Karimov/Getty Images

Security researchers and digital rights organizations believe the government of Azerbaijan used spyware produced by NSO Group to target a government worker, journalists, activists, and the human rights ombudsperson in Armenia, as part of a years long conflict that has at times broke out into an all-out war.

The cyberattacks may be the first public cases where commercial spyware was used in the context of a war, according to Access Now, a digital rights group that investigated some of the cases. The hacks happened between November 2021 and December 2022. The skirmish between Armenia and Azerbaijan — known as the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict — has been going on for years, and it flared up again in May 2021, when Azerbaijani soldiers crossed into Armenia and occupied parts of its territory.

"While a number of infected individuals are also members of the Armenian opposition or are otherwise critical of the current government, the infections took place at critical times in the Nagorno Karabakh conflict and a deep political crisis caused by the conflict, which resulted in a significant uncertainty over the future of the country's leadership and its position on Karabakh," Natalia Kariva, the tech legal counsel at AccessNow, told TechCrunch. "Some of the victims worked closely in or with [Armenia's] Nikol Pashinyan's administration and were directly involved in the negotiations or investigation of human rights abuses committed by Azerbaijan in the conflict."

The Azerbaijani embassy in Washington D.C. did not respond to a request for comment.

NSO Group did not respond to a request for comment.

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