Pegasus scandal: Global democracy under cyber attack

Tracking software penetrates any operating system (iOS or Android) and has the ability to steal passwords, messages and emails

Pegasus, an Israeli NSO Group’s spyware, has been used to spy on journalists, activists, and heads of state, Amnesty International said, demanding a moratorium on the use and sale of surveillance technology.

The NSO Group’s Pegasus malware can switch on a smartphone’s camera or microphone and steal its data. According to a major investigation into the leaks of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets, the Pegasus software has been used to violate human rights around the world on a massive scale. Even the most sophisticated and advanced firewalls, used on the latest iPhone models, are not able to prevent the penetration of Pegasus. WhatsApp also confirmed that senior government officials from around the world were targeted by the NSO Group’s spyware.

A global human rights crisis

The Pegasus scandal and the international outcry against the Israeli NSO Group have become a serious concern for state governments, while Amnesty International stated that their investigation has “exposed a global human rights crisis”.

Emanuel Macron, President of France, was forced to stop using one of his smartphones, as his number was included among many others targeted by Pegasus software. The former Prime Minister of France, Édouard Charles Philippe, and 14 other government ministers were also included in the same leak. The government ordered an in-depth investigation into the Pegasus scandal, to clarify the extent of the leak.

In India, opposition parties adjourned the Parliament Session demanding an immediate investigation into allegations that the government was involved in the surveillance scandal affecting dozens of politicians, journalists, and activists. Similar upheavals have occurred in many of the governments of countries allegedly involved in the Pegasus scandal, such as that of Saudi Arabia.

In Hungary, almost 1,000 people took to the streets of Budapest on Monday to protest over allegations that the government of Prime Minister Victor Orban used the Pegasus software to illegally spy on public figures.

Pegasus is nothing new, as it has been around and used since 2013. Amnesty International’s systematic journalistic investigation involving independent media, however, exposed the recent revelations about Pegasus’ potentially malicious action. The Guardian, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung, and The Washington Post are among the media partners that participated in the investigation and are about to run a series of stories exposing details of how world leaders, politicians, human rights activists, and journalists have been selected as potential targets of Pegasus software.

NSO denies the allegations

“The Pegasus Project lays bare how NSO’s spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists, and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril,” declared Agnès Callamard, Secretary-General of Amnesty International.

“These revelations blow apart any claims by NSO that such attacks are rare and down to rogue use of their technology. While the company claims its spyware is only used for legitimate criminal and terror investigations, it’s clear its technology facilitates systemic abuse. They paint a picture of legitimacy while profiting from widespread human rights violations” Callamard said.

The Israeli NSO Group has denied that the Pegasus spyware software was used to steal data and spy on politicians and journalists. On the contrary, the NSO insists its software is only intended for use in fighting terrorism and other crimes.

“The list is not a list of targets or potential targets of Pegasus. The numbers in the list are not related to the NSO group. Any claim that a name in the list is necessarily related to a Pegasus target or Pegasus potential target is erroneous and false. NSO is a technology company. We do not operate the system, nor do we have access to the data of our customers, yet they are obligated to provide us with such information under investigations” NSO stated.

However, Amnesty International published a 700-page report detailing how Pegasus software invades smartphones and steals data without being noticed. As stated in the report, the Pegasus can be installed even without the user doing the slightest thing, such as replying to a misleading message and inadvertently allowing the software to be installed.

“NSO claims its spyware is undetectable and only used for legitimate criminal investigations. We have now provided irrefutable evidence of this ludicrous falsehood,” said Etienne Maynier, a technologist at Amnesty International’s Security Lab.

“The widespread violations Pegasus facilitates must stop. Our hope is the damning evidence published over the next week will lead governments to overhaul a surveillance industry that is out of control,” Etienne Maynier highlighted.

George Mavridis is a freelance journalist and writer based in Greece. His work primarily covers tech, innovation, social media, digital communication, and politics. He graduated from the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki with a BA in Journalism and Mass Communication. Also, he holds an MA in Media and Communication Studies from the Malmö University of Sweden and an MA in Digital Humanities from the Linnaeus University of Sweden.