Pegasus: behind the hacking spyware that can access ‘our most intimate secrets’

Ingenious software covertly allows access to target’s mobile phone - with ‘devastating’ implications for democracy

People in New Delhi demonstrating with placards
People in New Delhi demonstrating against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged surveillance operation using the Pegasus spyware on 20 July, 2021
(Image credit: Prakash Singh/AFP via Getty Images)

Pegasus is an ingenious piece of spyware that covertly allows access to the target’s mobile phone, said The Guardian. Once it gains access, via little-known software flaws, it can not just extract emails, photos and contact details, but also secretly activate the phone’s microphone and camera – in short, it can access “our most intimate secrets”.

The Israeli company that makes it, NSO, claims that it sells its software only to vetted government clients, to help them prevent “terrorism and crime”. Unfortunately, that is not the case.

An investigation coordinated by the NGO Forbidden Stories, Amnesty and 17 news organisations, including The Guardian, suggests that Pegasus has been used by many authoritarian regimes and right-wing populist governments to target journalists, human rights activists, dissidents and opposition politicians. Pegasus seems to be enabling Orwellian “state surveillance” on a vast scale.

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The list of NSO’s clients should have raised suspicions, said Robert Fox on Big users include Hungary, Azerbaijan, Morocco, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Rwanda. Investigators have leaked a list of 50,000 phone numbers that may have been subjected to surveillance.

Among those apparently targeted were two leading journalists investigating state corruption and organised crime in Mexico; Hatice Cengiz, fiancée of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi who was murdered by Saudi Arabian agents; Roula Khalaf, the editor of the FT; and even, it seems, France’s President Macron, apparently targeted by Moroccan intelligence.

The leaked list of names has set off a “political storm” in India, said Manoj C.G. in The Indian Express. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most prominent political rival, Rahul Gandhi of the Congress party, was twice selected as a potential surveillance target by NSO. Dozens of Indian politicians, journalists, activists and government critics seem to have been targeted.

The implications for democracy are devastating, said Amitai Ziv in Haaretz. Who will ever want to share a secret with a reporter if they believe state agents may be listening in? Protests won’t even happen if everyone is “monitored and silenced” before they can reach the streets.

Alas, this issue is not limited to NSO, said David Kaye and Marietje Schaake in The Washington Post. The Israeli firm is just one of hundreds vying for a piece of the “lucrative private surveillance pie”; many are ready to do business with regimes of any stripe. Our response should be to push for a moratorium on the transfer of spyware until there are proper international controls in place. Anything less, and we could be headed for a “global surveillance tech catastrophe”.

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