Israeli software Pegasus may have been used to spy on activists, politicians, journalists globally

The revelation was made in a report published by The Guardian and 16 other media organizations on Sunday which is based on the findings of Amnesty International and Paris based Forbidden Stories.

July 20, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch

Rival politicians, human rights activists and journalists among others may have been spied on by governments across the world using Israeli NSO group-owned Pegasus spyware, a series of investigative reports claim. The reports part of the ‘Pegasus Project’ and were first published on Sunday, July 18, by different media organizations across the world. Further reports were published on Monday and more are expected in the coming days.

Among the likely targets are close to 50 associates of Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador (before he took office) and ministers, opposition leaders and activists in India.

The reports are based on the initial findings of Amnesty International and Paris based non-profit organization Forbidden Stories and facts investigated by a collective of media organizations including The Guardian, The Washington Post and 15 others. 

The reports claim that NSO clients, which according to the company are vetted government agencies, may have used the spyware to infect the phones of targeted individuals to collect data and track their movements and activities. 

Pegasus spyware can be activated by clicking on a link sent to a user’s phone. The latest advances in technology, though, allows the spyware to penetrate a device with ‘zero-click’ attacks, which don’t even require a user to click on the link for the spyware to infect the device. After activation, it can send copies of all activities to the spying agency. The spyware can extract contact details, messages, photos, emails and call records from people’s phones. The Pegasus software can also remotely activate phone cameras and microphones for real time surveillance.   

On Sunday the media organizations involved in the Pegasus Project revealed the names and details of around 180 journalists targeted through the spyware. Apart from journalists, those targeted are activists, lawyers, judges, government agents among others.

The NSO group was quoted by The Guardian denying the claims and saying that the claims made in the report are “false” and based on “uncorroborated theories.” In past proceedings in the Israeli courts, the group admitted that in some cases investigating government agencies may have misused the software. The clients who have allegedly been cut off. The software was primarily developed to track down the terrorists and criminal activities and only sold to government agencies. 

Victims could be in the thousands

The Guardian reported that the investigation has unearthed a list of around 50,000 phone numbers which are potential targets since 2016. The list does not mean that all the numbers were necessarily infected by the spyware. It means that they were of interest to the clients of NSO. 37 of these were confirmed to have been hacked.

The phone numbers belong to different strata of the society including activists, politicians, heads of states and governments, journalists and business executives among others. In some cases, the defense lawyers attached to a particular activist or politician have also been targeted.

Number of over 180 journalists from all major media organizations in the world including Al Jazeera, New York Times, Le Monde, Reuters among others were found to be on the list.   

According to NSO it only sells the software to government agencies and does not reveal the names of its clients. The leak, however, indicates the involvement of countries such as India, Azerbaijan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Hungry among others as clients. 

The revelation confirms earlier reports

Sunday’s revelation confirms the earlier reports of such use of Pegasus spyware on activists and journalists in various countries.  

Canada based Citizen Lab in December last year had revealed the use of the spyware against Al Jazeera journalists. Amnesty International had reported similar use of spyware against activists in Morocco in June 2020. 

In November 2018, Citizen Lab had revealed how the spyware was used to target dissidents in countries such as India, Saudi Arabia and others. 

Whistleblower Edward Snowden had claimed that Pegasus was used to track Jamal Khashoggi prior to his assassination.

Based on the Citizen Lab’s findings that it was used to infect phones of around 1,400 people across the globe for spying, WhatsApp had filed a lawsuit against the NSO group in the US. 

Amnesty International and 30 other human rights groups in Israel had filed a lawsuit in January last year to cancel the export licences of the NSO group after one of Amnesty’s employees and several journalists and activists were targeted by Pegasus. However, the court rejected the petition in July, 2020 saying that petitioners have failed to provide enough evidence that any human rights activist was targeted.