Worse Than Watergate?: Decoding The Pegasus Spyware Scandal

With Bengal’s CM Mamta Banerjee calling the Pegasus spyware scandal as worse than America’s Watergate scandal, we are taking a hard look at it.

In a petition to the Supreme Court, senior journalists N Ram and Sashi Kumar said that the Pegasus spyware should be probed by a sitting or former judge. The apex court should direct the government to disclose whether it has obtained a licence for the spyware or used it — directly or indirectly — to conduct surveillance of any kind.

Meet Pegasus

This mobile phone spyware is produced by Israel-based “Cyber Warfare” vendor NSO Group, and the company insists that it is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists. Let’s break this down further.

Firstly, what is a spyware? Spyware is designed to extract information like internet browsing history or private communications from devices without the knowledge of the user or their consent. Some sophisticated spyware can extract emails, phone calls and text messages. Some advanced spyware can even turn on your phone’s microphone, secretly record and even take pictures with the camera. In order for a spyware to get into your phone, you have to do some work from your part like clicking on a link of a malicious software or installing the software in the victim’s phone without their knowledge.

But Pegasus is more advanced than this. The Guardian report said that Pegasus infections can now be achieved via so-called zero-click attacks. This means that they do not require any interaction from the phone’s owner in order to succeed. This means that there is virtually no way for you to safeguard your devices against this spyware.

The Leak

There was an unprecedented leak of over 50,000 phone numbers selected since 2016 and Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based non-profit media organisation, and Amnesty International, an international non-government organisation focused on human rights had access to this data. An investigation by the Guardian and 16 other media organisations into this leak found a widespread and continuing abuse of the spyware. It also found that human rights activists, journalists and lawyers across the world have been targeted by authoritarian governments using this spyware.

Forbidden Stories wrote that at least 180 journalists have been selected for surveillance with the Pegasus technology. The list also includes hundreds of business executives, religious figures, academics, NGO employees, union officials and government officials, including cabinet ministers, presidents and prime ministers. After analysing the leaked data, the consortium identified at least 10 governments who are believed to be NSO customers who were entering numbers into a system. They were Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Hungary, India and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

The Impact

Snooping via the spyware has resulted in some harmful actions. Earlier in 2018, a Saudi dissident sued NSO, and he alleged that his phone was hacked by Saudi Arabia’s government using the company’s spyware. He said that this hack is part of an attempt to eavesdrop on communications between him and Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi was later murdered by a Saudi assassination team. The data leak suggested that the Turkish prosecutor who was investigating his death was also a candidate for targeting.

Also, in 2017, a freelance reporter, Cecilio Pineda Birto was shot dead at a car wash in a town in the southern Mexican region of Tierra Caliente. His phone number was also found in the recent list, and it is believed that the killers were able to locate him at the car wash because of the spyware. He was among at least 25 Mexican journalists apparently chosen as candidates for surveillance over a two-year period.

The analysis of the leaked records also found that a wide range of people in Hungary were selected as potential targets before a possible hacking attempt with the Pegasus spyware. The probe suggested that this move of targeting investigative journalists in the country is part of Hungary’s PM Viktor Orbán’s so-called war on the media.

The Wire reported that at least two mobile phone numbers used by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi were selected as a potential surveillance target from mid-2018 to mid-2019. It is important to note here that PM Narendra Modi won the 2019 national elections. Also, according to Foreign Policy, a junior woman staffer in India’s Supreme Court, who accused then-Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi of sexual harassment in 2019, is revealed to have had 11 of her and her family’s cellphones targeted by Pegasus. Another Supreme Court judge’s cellphone was allegedly snooped on, and so were cellphones of several lawyers working on politically sensitive cases.

What Does NSO Have To Say?

NSO said the Forbidden Stories reports are full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories. The company denied “false claims” made about the activities of its clients. NSO also said that the list could not be a list of numbers “targeted by governments using Pegasus”, and described the 50,000 figure as “exaggerated”.

The company said, as quoted by Bloomberg, “NSO Group is on a life-saving mission, and the company will faithfully execute this mission undeterred, despite any and all continued attempts to discredit it on false grounds.” However, it said that it would “continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action”, writes The Guardian.

In The End

These revelations are huge, and they shouldn’t be taken lightly. On one end, NSO is saying that they sell their products only to be used against terrorists and criminals. However, when we look at the above-mentioned category of people who were targeted by the spyware, we can see that several countries have abused this spyware. They have breached their contracts with NSO by spying on people who seemingly had no connection to criminality.

It looks like governments spied on people who were against them as they allegedly spied on pro-democracy activists and journalists investigating corruption, as well as political opponents and government critics. So, the spyware was abused by NSO clients but does that mean NSO should be off the hook because it just sold the product, and didn’t have any control over how its products would be used? Even though NSO is a private company, according to Bloomberg, the Israeli government controls where the company is allowed to send its products via export licenses. So, does this mean that the Israeli government was in cohorts with NSO and allowed the latter to sell its products to those countries, which would then offer a leverage to Israel in the future.

Also, it is clear that these governments have a lot to answer for, including the Modi government. Congress leader and former Union minister P Chidambaram, in an interview with PTI, said the PM Modi should make a statement about whether India used the Pegasus spyware, writes, Scroll.in. He also told PTI that Indian government is the only government that is “unconcerned” about Pegasus, writes NDTV.

People want answers because the news of using a spyware to target journalists, opposition leaders, and activists, is a big threat to democracy and just like Bengal, which has established the first judicial panel to probe Pegasus scandal, every other state or the entire country should thoroughly investigate this matter. People who hold positions of power should be never given immunity if they abuse that power, and we need better policies and systems to prevent such things from happening again.

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