Pegasus spyware: A horrid but inevitable reality

Published : Tuesday, 27 July, 2021 at 12:00 AM

Throughout the last week, we have seen several stories about a company called NSO Group and a piece of spyware called Pegasus. A coalition of news outlets, including The Washington Post, Le Monde and The Guardian is behind the reporting, and they’re calling it the Pegasus Project. The project was led by Forbidden Stories, an organization of journalists that works on stories after the original reporters have been silenced in some way. It is being said that, the governments, intelligence agencies, law enforcers etc. are using the spyware for gathering information. But why they need to use such a technology violating the very basic concept of ‘privacy’ remains a great question.

Pegasus is a spyware developed by a an Israeli company called NSO Group for use by government agencies. The program infects a target’s phone and sends back data, including photos, messages, and audio/video recordings. Pegasus’ developer says that the software cannot be traced back to the government using it – a crucial feature for covert operations. The company describes the role of its products on its website as helping government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies use technology to meet the challenges of encryption during terrorism and criminal investigations.

NSO Group is facing international criticism, after reporters obtained a list of alleged potential targets for spyware, including activists, politicians and journalists. Investigations have begun as the list, of 50,000 phone numbers, contained a small number of hacked phones. Pegasus infects iPhones and Android devices. The Israeli company says its software is intended for use against criminals and terrorists and made available to only military, law enforcement and intelligence agencies from countries with good human-rights records. But, the company has been accused of allowing repressive governments to hack innocent people on several occasions in recent years, including those close to murdered Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Of the people whose numbers are on the list, 67 agreed to give Forbidden Stories their phones for forensic analysis. And this research, by Amnesty International Security Labs, reportedly found evidence of potential targeting by Pegasus on 37 of those. French President Emmanuel Macon has changed his phone and number after reports that he was targeted with Pegasus. Others reportedly include President Baram Salih of Iraq, President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and the current prime ministers of Pakistan, Egypt and Morocco. Activists, journalists, officials, politicians and business figures from dozens of countries are also featured on the list though it is not clear how many phones on the list were hacked.

Though Pegasus is hitting the news strongly in recent days, the spyware has been in the news for years, often in connection with incidents similar to what’s currently being reported. In 2017, reports surfaced that the software had been used in attacks against Mexican reporters and activists. In 2019, WhatsApp sued NSO Group, alleging that the software developer was involved in the hacking of around 1,400 devices using an exploit found in WhatsApp’s code. Microsoft, Google, Cisco, and other tech companies signaled support for WhatsApp’s suit. In 2020, it was reported that NSO was being investigated by the FBI, in connection with the 2018 hack of Jeff Bezos’ cellphone.

If you are not a journalist working on sensitive stories, a world leader or in some position that could threaten governmental powers, the odds are that none will pay millions to target you with Pegasus. But it is clearly concerning that these types of attacks are possible while they could potentially fall into the hands of hackers looking to target a much broader range of people. However, Israel has established a commission to review allegations that NSO Group’s controversial Pegasus phone surveillance software was misused.

Unfortunately, the governments have been using spywares like technologies for decades. However holy they feel or depict their causes are, the true reason is only to strengthen their control and to protect their position in power. From the Watergate scandal to today’s Pegasus–all are different government’s backchannel tool to secure their position. Though the human rights organizations like Amnesty International are crying out loud to stop use of such spywares for the sake of protecting the privacy and rights of the citizens, sadly this is not going to happen as today’s espionage is completely dependent on such tools.

After the World War II, counterintelligence emerged as the inevitable force. Especially during the cold war era, we have seen the strong roles of USA’s CIA and USSR’s KGB in the espionage world, which even resulted in the dissolution of USSR. Surveillance technologies found their strong base from there. Now, most of the rich countries including the democratic ones are using such technologies. Countries with modern technologies are constantly investing in such surveillance tools and this is not going to stop anytime soon.

Spying on journalists, activists, business activists and politicians have become a necessity today. Lack of transparency and the hide and seek game in the global politics is the reason behind it. The journalists on several occasions were found to leak important government documents. Activists or opposing political party leaders are taking help of espionage or to be precise ‘information theft’ to gain advantage.

Moreover, espionage members from different agencies like; USA’s CIA, Russia’s FIS or FSB or GRU, Israel’s Mossad, India’s RAW, Pakistan’s ISI, China’s MSS, Germany’s BND, France’s DGSE, UK’s MI6 and many others are present in different countries today. In our country also agencies like NSI, DGFI, SB, DB etc. are continuously collecting intelligence. Moreover, these agencies use private informers for protecting national interests.

If a journalist writes about a national issue openly, he might even face jail time. But such honesty is becoming extinct today. The activists today also try to achieve their goals in a shortcut way. The politicians shake hands with anyone, risking national interests, to achieve political or personal benefits. In such a world, Pegasus will keep coming.

For centuries, espionage is a reality. Previously, it was a manual or physical process. But as the technology advanced, digital tools are being used at a great extent. The governments especially the autocratic ones will use such tools to control national or international matters. But that does not mean the journalists or activists should fear such tactics. For examples, investigative journalism for decades bear huge risks and the journalists should come into this profession knowing that. People with causes must take the risks which led many successful revolutions or even inventions of the world history.

Moreover, even before World War I, the game of power lied in controlling the interests in foreign countries rather than self-development. The powerful countries of the world like USA, Russia, UK, India, China, Israel, Iran, Saudi Arabia etc. try to control their region and to spread their influence in countries where their business interests exist.

Additionally, different governments are trying to remain in power for decades. Espionage is enabling them to serve those goals and an espionage system without a strong surveillance system is unbelievable today. So, it is expected that, the governments and intelligence agencies will keep investing in such technology. Not only NSO group but also many other companies based in strong democratic countries have invented such technology throughout decades.

Transparency, courage and honesty has shaped the history of mankind. But these virtues are extinct today. Strong or financially resourceful countries are constantly investing to increase their regional or global influence and control, sometimes even compromising national interests. The technology has reached so far that if needed a person’s activity at his home can be tracked easily. In such circumstance, ‘privacy’ and ‘freedom’ will remain a myth. But fortunately, if someone is not in the business of trading information or harming national interest or carrying out some other gruesome agenda, he is usually not the target.

We hope to live in a truly free world someday. But with the ongoing events throughout the world is crushing our dreams. Our development and progress are coming at a cost of our freedom and that is the reality. If the countries start investing in the welfare of people more than protecting their supremacies, then the world will be a much better place to live. We hope the global leaders realize that someday.

The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Chief Patron, Bangabandhu Shishu Kishore Mela

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