An international reporting alliance, Pegasus Project found that the Israeli spyware has been used to hack 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, activists, politicians, and many other government critics all over the world. According to the findings, the spyware called Pegasus was also used to target 2 women related to Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. They were among the list of 50,000 contact numbers, that were possible surveillance targets of multiple governments.
Reportedly, the alliance shared these discoveries after extracting evidence from afflicted phones by digital forensics. Media platforms have strongly condemned the revelation and said it was a shameful violation of press freedom.
What is Pegasus Project?
The Pegasus Project is a collaboration of more than 80 journalists from 17 media organizations in 10 countries. It is coordinated by a Paris-based NGO, Forbidden Stories with Amnesty International providing technical support. It exposed the surveillance activities of governments worldwide, which had nothing to do with national security.
The report stated that the military-grade Israeli spyware was licensed by a private Israeli company NSO Group for governments to track persons of interest like criminals and terrorists. However, the major interest for governments is seemingly abusing the Pegasus software to hack just anyone they want.
The Israeli company previously claimed that its clients i.e., governments would not be able to hack American phones with this software. Reportedly, a physical forensic exam of a device was necessary to establish if the hack was successful or not. The NSO Group denied the reports and said that the numbers ‘may’ have been there for some ‘other’ purpose, without explaining the detail.
What is on The List?
Pegasus Project was able to identify over 1,000 people from over 50 countries who appeared on the list along with 189 journalists, 65 business executives, 85 activists, 600 politicians (including heads of states), and several Arab Royal Family members.
The journalists on the list belong to major news organizations like CNN, Bloomberg, the Associated Press, New York Times, and Al Jazeera. The politicians also include heads of state and some military personnel. The most shocking revelation was that the Pegasus malware affected the phones of both Kashoggi’s wife and fiancé around the time of his death.
According to the report, his wife, Hanan Elatr was repeatedly targeted between September 2017 and April 2018. The phones of his son, Abdullah, and other family members in the UAE and Saudi Arabia were also hacked before his death in October 2018. Jamal’s fiancé, Hatice Cengiz’s phone was targeted just 4 days after his murder according to the digital forensics by Amnesty lab.
Besides Jamal, another journalist in Mexico, Cecilio Pineda was selected for Pegasus targeting just a few weeks before he was killed in 2017. At least 25 Mexican journalists have been selected for hack attacks in the period of 2 years. Moreover, co-founders of an Indian independent news outlet The Wire, Siddharth Varadarajan, and MK Venu have been infected recently with the Pegasus malware.
What Kind of Help is This?
The report documented that the Pegasus spyware attacks have been evolving since 2018. The virus has a proper infrastructure with 700+ domains. The spyware starts by slithering its way into the target’s phone and making it a 24/7 surveillance device. It can copy messages, harvest photos, and videos, and listen to calls without notifying the user. Pegasus can use the phone’s camera or microphone to monitor the target and record his/her conversations. It can literally point out the exact location of the user and with whoever he/she has come in contact with.
The critics of this system are of opinion that such software is being used to intimidate the media and control the public narrative. It helps the governments to resist ongoing scrutiny and suppress dissent as much as they can. Most of the numbers on the list; around 15000 were from Mexico. Other countries represented in the list were UAE, Qatar, France, India, Pakistan, Kazakhstan, Azerbaijan, and Hungry.
Response from Spyware Maker
The report affirmed that the tool has also been used to capture criminals and terrorists to some extent as it included the numbers of suspected criminals. NSO stated that it will investigate any ‘misuse of the technology’ but mass surveillance will continue. The company also did not mention the governments which were its clients. It maintained that NSO systems were being actively used to destroy sex and drug trafficking rings, locate missing persons, capture pedophiles, locate trapped survivors, and protect airspaces against drone attacks.
NSO also denied Pegasus involvement in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi. It said that nobody used the technology to monitor Jamal or his family during the time of the murder or investigation. However, the credibility of this Israeli firm is questionable because it is not the first time it is in the highlights for using hacking against critics and activists. In 2019, WhatsApp sued NSO for helping governments in compromising the security of its users.