The software of the Israeli company NSO is at the heart of a spy scandal uncovered by the consortium of journalists Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. It is believed to have been used to spy on activists, journalists and activists illegally in many countries. Pegasus reportedly allowed 50,000 telephone numbers to be placed under surveillance, including those of at least 180 journalists, 600 political figures, 85 human rights activists and 65 business leaders.
On Sunday 18 July, a consortium of 17 international media outlets led by Forbidden Stories, which includes Le Monde and radio France’s investigation unit, highlighted the massive use of software called Pegasus developed by the Israeli company NSO Group.
However, in view of the investigations of the aforementioned media, it would seem that the program has been used to spy on journalists, lawyers or activists, around the world, since 2016. For some experts, this is the biggest surveillance scandal since the Edward Snowden case.
Software that sucks up all the data
The software was originally presented as a tool in the fight against terrorism and organized crime. According to Amnesty International, Pegasus is a particularly intrusive software, which, once installed, can suck up your data: messages, photos, contacts… Worse: it can take full control of your device: access to your camera, tracking keystrokes on your keyboard, listening and recording your phone calls, warns the organization. Pegasus can also suck up encrypted data, like those coming from applications such as Signal or Telegram.
It also has some features à la James Bond, such as the ability to activate, remotely, the microphone of the phone, “Once installed on your mobile phone, Pegasus can capture everything, monitor everything, “amnesty international said.
Software undetectable by the person being spied on
Pegasus is a software of military quality, according to the Washington Post, put in the service of states to spy on nationals, but sold as a used to obtain intelligence against criminal or terrorist networks.
It can be used with all operating systems of smartphones, just like IOS for Apple, Android or Google. Its dangerousness is all the more increased because it is very difficult to realize that a phone has been hacked. “Invisible to the user of the phone, this software can be installed remotely, without the target even needing to click on a malicious link, and discreetly, relying on security flaws in the software of Apple and Google, which these giants do not always correct fast enough”, reveals Le Monde.
Software that presents risks to human rights
If Pegasus has been in the spotlight since the revelation of the consortium, some had already worried about the dangerousness of this particularly intrusive software. Already in 2018, CitizenLab, A Canadian research laboratory at the intersection of information and communication technologies, human rights, and global security, announced that 45 countries were using the software.
Their findings painted a bleak picture by denouncing human rights risks from the global proliferation of NSO software: At least six countries with significant Pegasus operations have already been linked to the misuse of spyware to target civil society, including Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.
In 2019, Amnesty International had already published a report pointing to the responsibility of the Israeli company and its software for the surveillance of two opponents of the Moroccan regime, Maati Monjib and Abdessadak El Bouchattaoui. The following year Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories denounced the spying of Moroccan journalist and human rights defender Omar Radi.
According to the consortium and the latest revelations, 50,000 phone numbers have been selected by NSO customers since 2016 for potential monitoring. It includes the numbers of at least 180 journalists,600 politicians, 85 human rights activists and 65 business leaders, according to the analysis conducted by the consortium, which has located many issues in Morocco, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.