“Pegasus spyware is an insult on democracy”


European Union

Lennart Nijenhuis, CNE.news

French President Macron's private phone has been a possible target of Moroccan security services. image AFP, Miguel Medina

Journalists, activists and politicians are being followed daily by their phones. The Pegasus software is causing controversy worldwide. Four questions and answers.

What is Pegasus?

Pegasus is an observation technology developed by the Israeli NSO Group. It sells the software exclusively to governments and law enforcement agencies. Pegasus users can hack into their targets’ phones undetected. So-called “zero-click” attacks can crack a phone without the user having to do anything. This makes Pegasus one of the most advanced forms of observation technology.

Once the virus invades, it undetected takes control of the phone. It can read along with messages, even if encrypted, eavesdrop on telephone conversations and track GPS locations. It is also possible to remotely switch on the microphone or camera.

Both Android phones and iPhones are vulnerable to this software; according to The Guardian, there were successful attacks on iPhones as late as July 2021. These iPhones possessed the most recent security patches.

What causes problems?

Research by collaborating media, including The Guardian and Le Monde, shows that countries use Pegasus not only against criminals and terrorists. India, Hungary and Mexico, among others, also seem to use this spyware against opposition members, journalists and activists. Furthermore, French President Macron and the President of the European Council Charles Michel would be a potential target of Moroccan security services, The Washington Post reported.

Although NSO Group claims it helps countries “lawfully” prevent crime, the developers also sell their products to countries such as Azerbaijan, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia, according to the researchers. These countries are, however, not immediately known for their respect for human rights.

What is Israel’s role in all of this?

It is not clear whether Israel has access to data collected by NSO’s customers. However, the government did intervene in a deal between NSO and Saudi Arabia; according to The Guardian, it gave explicit permission in 2017 to enter into talks with the oil state.

According to research by the British newspaper, Indian and Hungarian customers began using the observation technology shortly after their heads of government met with then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

At a 2017 press conference in Hungary, Netanyahu spoke of his government’s role in the economy: “Markets dictate what works. I don’t dictate. I don’t pretend to dictate. (…) But where did we actually intervene in a business? Only in one area – cybersecurity.”

What are the consequences of the publications?

The publications have provoked strong reactions from politicians and journalists. The Indian opposition calls the tracking of opposition members by Prime Minister Modi’s government departments an “insult to democracy.”

According to whistleblower Edward Snowden, the publications are a reason to ban the spyware sector. In an interview with The Guardian, he calls it illustrative that authoritarian regimes can use such drastic software through commercial parties. “If they can do the same thing from a distance, with little cost and no risk, they begin to do it all the time, against everyone who’s even marginally of interest.”


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