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Pegasus spyware sold to governments to target activists and lawyers

The private data of human rights activists, journalists, and lawyers is reportedly under threat globally. Leaked records suggest as many as 1,000 have been targeted by phone malware sold to governments by an Israeli surveillance firm.

Stories of big tech companies and anti-democratic governments butting heads have become common over the last few years. However, if new reports are to be believed, the whole data war may have taken its most sinister turn yet.

According to Paris-based anti-censorship outfit Forbidden Stories, mobile spyware is being discreetly sold to authoritarian government leaders to hijack the private data of activists, journalists, lawyers, and even heads of state.

Backed by the technical nous of Amnesty International, Forbidden Stories coordinated forensic tests on the mobile phones of reported targets to identify traces of any potential spyware.

Expecting to find the odd data violation, the mission instead unearthed a full-scale assault on democracy.

NSO weaponising the Pegasus Project

All cases trace back to what is known as the Pegasus Project.

Developed by an Israeli cyber intelligence firm called NSO, the Pegasus Project has long used spyware – capable of capturing audio and video, messages, emails, media, and contacts – to keep tabs on known terrorist and serious criminal threats.

Until this week, it was thought Pegasus was only available to national militaries, law enforcement groups, and intelligence agencies with clean human rights records. If leaks are to be believed, however, the technology has done far more harm than good.

A consortium of media outlets including CNN, the New York Times, The Washington Post, and Al Jazeera have joined an on-going investigation and claim that more than 1,000 innocent people spanning 50 countries have been targeted for surveillance using Pegasus.

Disturbingly, those targeted fall into the brackets of heads of state, business executives, activists, and more than 180 journalists. A slight deviation from the criminal masterminds the tech was created to dig up then.

Those found on illegal surveillance records mostly belonged to countries run by some of the world’s most repressive regimes. Shock.

Mostly clustered across Azerbaijan, Bahrain, India, Mexico, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, Pegasus has seemingly been made available to rent by any political front deadest against democracy.

The most heinous cases

Looking at most cases of Pegasus surveillance, an obvious opposition to critics of repression and corruption is instantly clear.

You may have heard the case of Umar Khalid, an Indian student activist and leader of the Democratic Student Union currently facing ‘sedition’ charges in jail.

Arrested in 2020 for demonstrating against the state, Delhi authorities claimed they had somehow amassed over a million pieces of evidence from Khalid’s phone. A year later, the probe into Pegasus shows Khalid targeted for surveillance in late 2018. Connect the dots there, if you will.

Most Indians listed in the Pegasus network arrested for ‘terrorism’ charges are writers, lawyers, and artists who advocated for the rights of indigenous communities. Among them was an 84-year-old Jesuit priest called Stan Swamy, who was bizarrely charged with plotting to assassinate the prime minister. He died earlier this year of Covid-19 behind bars.

Alarmingly, the wife of Jamal Khashoggi – a Saudi dissident and anti-state journalist, who was brutally murdered in 2018 while visiting a consulate in Istanbul – is shown as a spyware target just days after her husband’s murder.

The phone of Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto also appeared on the Pegasus list, including twice in the month before he was shot dead at a car wash. The phone was never recovered from the crime scene.


The response from NSO

As you’d expect, NSO staunchly denies all claims that Pegasus has been used nefariously by governments despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

In-fact, only two weeks ago it published its first ever ‘transparency report’ detailing human rights policies and pledges over 32-pages. Before the probe into Pegasus had even concluded, Amnesty International brushed the document off as a ‘sales brochure.’

A spokesperson for the Indian government said, ‘The allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever.’ Meanwhile, the governments of Azerbaijan and Mexico have failed to respond to multiple inquires so far.

For those who keep up to date with global privacy laws and the role of big tech, Pegasus has the potential to become the most heinous violation in modern history, provided claims are validated, of course.

It’s no secret that certain nations have long leveraged online data to rule with an iron fist. Today, social media sites are under pressure in nations like China and India to cough up user information upon government request, but crucially hold the final decision on whether or not to oust certain markets.

In NSO’s case, we’re talking about these same governments having unlimited access to our most private data without any obstacles. It’s an utterly terrifying thought.

Further details are set to emerge over the coming days and weeks regarding potential targets and offences. You’ll definitely want to keep up to date with this.