Reporters without Borders asks Israel to stop spyware export following Pegasus Project revelations

Several governments have been accused of using the Israeli spyware to snoop on dissidents and journalists in reports published by 17 media organisations worldwide recently

July 22, 2021 by Peoples Dispatch

On Wednesday, July 21, Reporters without Borders (RSF) demanded that Israel stop the export of NSO Group’s spyware saying that it cannot escape responsibility for its harmful effects. The demand followed the recent revelation of a database with thousands of names who may have been targets of snooping using the Pegasus spyware that is manufactured by the NSO Group. Among those listed are world leaders, activists, critics of governments and journalists.

RSF in a report claimed that Israel has been using NSO exports as a supplement of its foreign policy and “like arms sales, decisions on the exportation of sensitive digital technology are the responsibility of governments, which cannot turn a blind eye to its harmful effects, especially when it is used to persecute dissidents and critics all over the world.”  

Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary general, said that “enabling governments to install spyware that is used in practice to monitor hundreds of journalists and their sources throughout the world poses a major democratic problem” and asked the Israeli prime minister to impose a moratorium on the spyware “until a protective regulatory framework has been established.”  

Several other individuals and human rights groups have demanded similar accountability from Israel. 

Though both prime minister Naftali Bennett and defense minister Benny Gantz have denied any immediate move to ban the exports, the government has started an investigation into the allegations against the NSO Group. 

Helping governments monitor dissidents 

According to revelations published as part of the Pegasus Project by The Guardian and 16 other media groups since Sunday, nearly 50,000 phone numbers were identified to have been potential targets of infection with the Pegasus spyware in a number of countries across the world. The list of governments that may have been involved in snooping include Mexico, Morocco, India, Saudi Arabia, Rwanda, Hungry, UAE. 

In India, the revelations have listed the names of opposition leaders, serving ministers, dissidents, journalists and human rights activists. The list includes the main opposition leader, Rahul Gandhi, and several prominent journalists and activists jailed in the Bhima Koregaon case.   

The Washington Post reported that in the UAE, Pegasus may have been used by the government to trace and apprehend women belonging to the ruling family whereas Saudi Arabia used it to trace dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi before he was assassinated in 2018. 

The phone number of French president Emmanuel Macron was found to be on the list. Some French journalists were spied on using the Pegasus software as well. France has ordered an inquiry into the allegations. However, governments in several other countries have so far refused to take any action.  

The revelations, based on the findings of Amnesty International and Paris based non-profit Forbidden Stories, confirmed similar allegations against the NSO Group made in the last couple of years by Canada-based Citizen Lab and whistleblower Edward Snowden.

The NSO Group has stated that its clients are governments or their agencies and the purpose of the spyware is to prevent terrorism and other crimes. It has also claimed that the “list is not a list of targets or potential targets of Pegasus.”

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