19 July 2021 — Counter Currents
NSO Group, a private Israeli firm that sells surveillance technology to governments worldwide, insists that its Pegasus spyware is used only to “investigate terrorism and crime.” Leaked data, however, reveals that the company’s hacking tool “has been used to facilitate human rights violations around the world on a massive scale.”
That’s according to an investigative report published Sunday by the Pegasus Project, a media consortium of more than 80 journalists from 17 news outlets in 10 countries. The collaborative endeavor was coordinated by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media nonprofit, with technical assistance from Amnesty International, which conducted “cutting-edge forensic tests” on smartphones to identify traces of the military-grade spyware.
The Guardian, one of the newspapers involved in the analysis, reported that “Pegasus is a malware that infects iPhones and Android devices to enable operators of the tool to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls, and secretly activate microphones.” The Washington Post, another partner in the investigation, noted that the tool “can infect phones without a click.”
A massive data leak turned up a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers that, according to the Post, “are concentrated in countries known to engage in surveillance of their citizens and also known to have been clients of… NSO Group, a worldwide leader in the growing and largely unregulated private spyware industry.”
The list consists of at least 180 targeted journalists, with reporters, executives, and editors from the Financial Times, CNN, the New York Times, France 24, the Economist, Associated Press and Reuters, all identified by the Pegasus project
More phone numbers were based in Mexico than any other country, with over 15,000 on the list, “including those belonging to politicians, union representatives, journalists, and other government critics,” the Post noted.
As The Guardian reported: “The phone number of a freelance Mexican reporter, Cecilio Pineda Birto, was found in the list, apparently of interest to a Mexican client in the weeks leading up to his murder, when his killers were able to locate him at a carwash. His phone has never been found so no forensic analysis has been possible to establish whether it was infected.”
Among this list are governments notorious for violating the human rights of journalists and citizens. Notably, Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman was found to have ordered the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Several members of Khashoggi’s family, as well as close associates and Turkish officials investigating the murder, were targets for NSO’s spyware.
Khashoggi’s fiancée, Hatice Cengiz, was allegedly hacked with Pegasus spyware just four days after his murder.
The Wire revealed that more than 1000 phones in India were snooped upon by the Pegasus spyware sold by the Israeli company, NSO Group. This included Congress’ Rahul Gandhi, poll strategist Prashant Kishor and the Centre’s new IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw. Scores of journalists, human rights activists, politicians, business persons and even government functionaries were targeted.
The Wire has said at least two mobile phone accounts used by Rahul Gandhi were among 300 verified Indian numbers listed as potential targets.
The targets include two current Union Ministers, Prahlad Patel and Ashwini Vaishnaw, according to The Wire. Mr Patel appears to have been a person of “particular interest”, The Wire says, as the leaked list had phone numbers not just of him and his wife but 15 people linked to him, including his cook and gardener.
More than 1,000 phone numbers in India appeared on the list, according to a months-long collaborative investigation by The Wire, The Washington Post and other media partners in 10 countries. Besides key politicians, over 40 Indian journalists and a constitutional authority were also found on the database of NSO as connected to people of interest since 2016, The Wire has reported.
The Wire’s analysis of the data shows that most of the names were targeted between 2018 and 2019, in the run-up to the 2019 general elections, but there was not enough evidence to suggest all phones had been hacked.
The Israeli company, NSO Group, which sells Pegasus, has denied the snooping allegations, claimed that it only offers its spyware to “vetted governments” and said it was “considering a defamation lawsuit”. According to The Wire, forensic tests conducted on some phones associated with the target numbers revealed clear signs of targeting by Pegasus spyware – a job made easier if the device was an Apple iPhone.