The Pegasus Project: How the Israeli spyware attacked politicians, activists and journalists

The Pegasus Project: How the Israeli spyware attacked politicians, activists and journalists

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Islam News – From Wikipedia -The Pegasus Project is an international investigative journalism initiative that revealed governments’ espionage on journalists, opposition politicians, activists, business people and others using the private NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware. Pegasus is ostensibly marketed for surveillance of “serious crimes and terrorism”. In 2020, a target list of 50,000 phone numbers leaked to Forbidden Stories, and an analysis revealed the list contained the numbers of leading opposition politicians, human rights activists, journalists, lawyers and other political dissidents.[1]

 

More than half of these phones that were inspected by the Amnesty International’s cybersecurity team revealed forensic evidence of the Pegasus spyware, a zero-click Trojan virus developed by NSO Group.[1] This malware provides the attacker full access to the targeted smartphone, its data, images, photographs and conversations as well as camera, microphone and geolocalization. This information was passed along to 17 media organisations under “The Pegasus Project” umbrella name. Reports started to be published by member organisations on 18 July 2021, revealing notable non-criminal targets and analyzing the practice as a threat to freedom of the press, freedom of speech, dissidents and democratic opposition. On 20 July, 14 heads of state were revealed as former targets of Pegasus malware.[2] Various parties called for further investigation of the abuses and a limitation on trading such repressive malware, among them the newsrooms involved, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Press Institute, Edward Snowden and others.

 

Pegasus (spyware)

The Pegasus spyware was developed by the Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group. It can be covertly installed on mobile phones (and other devices) running most[3] versions of iOS and Android. The spyware is named after the mythical winged horse Pegasus—it is a Trojan horse that can be sent “flying through the air” to infect phones.[4] Usages of the Pegasus spyware have been monitored for years. Amnesty has argued that the digital invasion is correlated with real-life consequences for spied targets, via psychological or physical damages.[5]

 

NSO states that it provides “authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime”,[6][7] has published sections of contracts requiring customers to use its products only for criminal and national security investigations, and stated that it has an industry-leading approach to human rights.[1]

 

Investigation: Origins and members

In 2020, a list of over 50,000 phone numbers believed to belong to individuals identified as “people of interest” by clients of the Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group was leaked to Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, a media nonprofit organisation based in Paris, France. This information was passed along to 17 media organisations under the umbrella name “The Pegasus Project”. Over several months, over 80 journalists from The Guardian (United Kingdom), Le Monde and Radio France (France), Die Zeit, Süddeutsche Zeitung, WDR and NDR (Germany), The Washington Post and Frontline (United States),[8] Haaretz (Israel), Aristegui Noticias and Proceso (Mexico), Knack and Le Soir (Belgium), The Wire (India), Daraj (Syria),[9] Direkt36 (Hungary),[10] and OCCRP investigated the spying abuses.

 

Investigative methodology

The leaked list of targeted phone numbers provides an indication of being a “person of interest” and a first indication of possible hacking, to be confirmed via direct forensic examination of the phone. Amnesty has published Forensic Methodology Report: How to catch NSO Group’s Pegasus.[3] According to Amnesty, “The Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto has independently peer-reviewed a draft of the forensic methodology outlined in this report. Their review can be found here”.[3] Amnesty also published various tools or data from this investigation, including a Mobile Verification Toolkit (MVT)[3] and a GitHub repository listing indicators of NSO/Pegasus compromised devices.[3][11] Some emerging unverified online services claim to be able to assess an infection by Pegasus, but their usage is discouraged as possible scams themselves.[12] Amnesty and Forbidden Stories received numerous queries for checking devices but were not able to satisfy the demand for assistance.[12]

 

Findings

The investigation suggested that Pegasus continued to be widely used by authoritarian governments to spy on human rights activists, journalists and lawyers worldwide, although NSO claims that it is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists.[1][13]

 

While the list included the numbers of known criminals, against whom Pegasus is intended to be used, the list also included the phone numbers of hundreds of business executives, religious figures, academics, NGO employees, union officials and government officials, including cabinet ministers, presidents and prime ministers, and also of close family members of one country’s ruler, possibly spied on by the ruler.[citation needed] The Observer revealed details on 18 July 2021[citation needed] and said that its sister daily The Guardian would report further details in the following days.[citation needed]

 

Analysis

A French journalist noted that “in a matter of cyber-surveillance, we observe that abuse is de facto the rule”.[14] Forbidden Stories argues the Pegasus software and its usages de facto constitute a global weapon to silence journalists.[15]

 

Regions and targets

Targets include known criminals as well as human rights defenders, political opponents, lawyers, diplomats, heads of state and nearly 200 journalists from 24 countries.[16] The Guardian mentioned 38 journalists in Morocco, 48 journalists in Azerbaijan, 12 journalists in the United Arab Emirates and 38 journalists in India as having been targeted.[17] Some of the targets whose names have been revealed are listed below; the list is non-exhaustive.

 

Heads of state and government

According to an analysis by the German newspaper Die Zeit, the following incumbent and former heads of state and government have been targeted,[18][19] implying possible full access to their mobile phones data:

 

Noureddine Bedoui, former Prime Minister of Algeria

Mostafa Madbouly, Prime Minister of Egypt

Charles Michel, former Prime Minister of Belgium and current President of the European Council

Emmanuel Macron, President of France

Édouard Philippe, former Prime Minister of France

Édith Chabre, wife of Édouard Philippe

Most French ministers

Numerous French diplomats

Barham Salih, President of Iraq

Bakhytzhan Sagintayev, former Prime Minister of Kazakhstan

Saad Hariri, Prime Minister of Lebanon

Mohammed VI, King of Morocco

Saadeddine Othmani, Prime Minister of Morocco

Imran Khan, Prime Minister of Pakistan

Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa

Ruhakana Rugunda, former Prime Minister of Uganda

Ahmed Obeid bin Daghr, former Prime Minister of Yemen

Azerbaijan

Fatima Movlamli, an Azerbaijani civil society activist and journalist opposed to local authoritarian government. Intimate photographs of her were leaked on Facebook in 2019 when she was only 18.[17]

Hungary

Used against opposition journalists, opposition leaders and critics.

 

Szabolcs Panyi, a Hungarian investigative journalist for Direkt36 [hu], hacked in 2019.[20] Panyi joined the Pegasus Project investigation.[20]

András Szabó, a Hungarian investigative journalist.[21]

Dávid Dercsényi, a Hungarian investigative journalist (HVG).[10]

György Gémesi, a right-wing opposition politician, mayor of Gödöllő and president of the Alliance of Hungarian Local-Governments.[22]

János Bánáti [hu], president of the Hungarian Bar Association, and nine other lawyers.[23]

Zoltán Varga [hu], a businessman and owner of Central Media Group, which publish opposition press products (24.hu).[10]

Attila Chikán, a former economy minister in the first cabinet of Viktor Orbán, currently a vocal critic of Orbán’s politics.[10]

India

 

Stan Swamy, a Roman Catholic priest and tribal rights activist, was arrested on terrorism charges and died in prison in 2021

Used against opposition leaders, union ministers, journalists, administrators such as Election Commissioner and minority leaders.

 

Rahul Gandhi, a Indian politician and main rival of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was targeted on two of his cellphones.[24]

Five close friends and other Indian National Congress party officials were in the leaked list of potential targets.[24]

Prashant Kishor, a political strategist and tactician.[25]

Ashok Lavasa, an ex-Election Commissioner of India who flagged Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s poll code violation in the 2019 Indian general election was targeted.[26]

Numerous Indian politicians including Deputy Chief Minister of Karnataka G. Parameshwara, as well as close aides of then Chief Minister H. D. Kumaraswamy and senior Congress leader Siddaramaiah.[27][28][29]

Abhishek Banerjee, a West Bengal politician of the AITC, and nephew of incumbent Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee. [30]

Siddharth Varadarajan, a New Delhi–based, American investigative journalist and founder of The Wire. Varadarajan joined the investigation of Project Pegasus.[20]

Umar Khalid, a left-wing student activist and leader of the Democratic Students’ Union, was added to the list in late 2018, then charged with sedition. He was arrested in September 2020 for organising riots, the provided evidence was taken from his phone. He is currently in jail awaiting trial.[17]

Stan Swamy, an Indian Jesuit father and activist. Swamy died in July 2021 at the age of 84 after contracting COVID-19 in prison.[17]

Collaborators Hany Babu, Shoma Sen and Rona Wilson were also in the project’s list of alleged targets.[17]

Ashwini Vaishnaw, Minister of Electronics and Information Technology who assumed office less than 3 weeks before the investigation was revealed.[31]

Italy

Romano Prodi, former Prime Minister of Italy and former President of the European Commission was spied while he was working as the UN Special Envoy to Sahel.[32]

Mexico

Used against anti-corruption journalists, opposition leaders and a judge.

 

Cecilio Pineda Birto (d. 2017), a Mexican investigative and anti-corruption journalist. His phone was added as a Pegasus target just weeks before his assassination.[20]

Eduardo Ferrer Mac-Gregor Poisot [es], a Mexican judge, former president of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.[17]

Alejandro Solalinde, a Catholic priest and champion of migrants’ rights. Believe to be targeted due to his support to opposition politicians.[17]

Morocco

Used against opposition and Western Sahara–friendly journalists in Morocco and France.

 

Edwy Plenel, a French journalist, co-founder and publishing editor at opposition newsroom Mediapart, hacked in 2019 by Morocco.[33]

Lénaïg Bredoux [fr], a French journalist also at Mediapart, hacked in 2020 by Morocco.[33]

Ignacio Cembrero [es], a Spanish journalist specialising in the Maghreb. He reported that he was hacked by the Moroccan government after learning that in June a Moroccan newspaper “picked up two Whatsapp conversations he had had with senior officials of the Spanish administration”.[34][35]

Saudi Arabia

 

Loujain al-Hathloul, Saudi women’s rights activist, was placed on Pegasus target’s list then abducted, arrested and tortured.

Used against an opposition journalist and a women’s rights activist since 2018.

 

Jamal Khashoggi (died 2 October 2018), a Saudi-American investigative and opposition journalist, a contributor to The Washington Post, assassinated by Saudi operatives. Khashoggi, his wife Hanan El-Atr and phones of other people close to him have been targeted before and after his assassination.[36]

Hatice Cengiz [ar], Khashoggi’s partner, was infected with Pegasus with forensic evidence of the spyware found on 6, 9 and 12 October 2018, few days after Khashoggi’s assassination.[37]

Khashoggi’s contacts Yasin Aktay, Yahya Assiri, Hanan El-Atr, Abdullah Khashoggi, Madawi al-Rasheed, and Azzam Tamimi were also targeted.[38]

İrfan Fidan [tr], Turkey’s Istanbul chief prosecutor in charge of the Khashoggi murder’s investigation, who later charged 20 Saudi operatives, is on the list of leaked targets.[39]

Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi women’s rights activist, selected in 2018, likely by the United Arab Emirates (an ally of Saudi Arabia), before her forced abduction and return to Saudi Arabia for arrest and possibly torture. She was released from prison in February 2021, but her freedom of movement is still limited.[17]

Spain

Used against the Catalan independence movement from 2015 onwards:[40]

 

Roger Torrent, allegedly attacked during his mandate as President of the Parliament of Catalonia.[41]

Anna Gabriel i Sabaté, leading figure of the Catalan anticapitalist party Popular Unity Candidacy and related to the organisation of the 2017 Catalan independence referendum.[41]

Ernest Maragall, former Minister of Education of Catalonia, Member of the European Parliament, candidate to Barcelona City Council in 2019 for the Republican Left of Catalonia.[42]

United Arab Emirates

Used against human rights activists, local leaders and local nobility and Sheikh Maktoum family members. With more than 10,000 people of interest linked to Dubai it was one of the most extensive use Pegasus.[43][44] Targets are mainly from UAE and Qatar, but also includes people from Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Europe and Asia.[43] In 2020,[45] NSO Pegasus license was stripped from Dubai due to human rights concerns[46] and spying on Sheikh Maktoum family members.[45]

 

Princess Haya bint Hussein, ex-wife of Sheikh Maktoum of Dubai, self-exiled in London.[46] The list of “people of interest” includes her phone number as well as the phone number of 8 of her closest aides, advisers and friends, including personal assistant, security staffs, one of her lawyers advising her in her custody and divorce dispute with Sheikh Maktoum.[46]

Security firm Quest’s staffs: Martin Smith, CEO; its director of investigations; Shimon Cohen, its communications adviser.[46]

John Gosden, a British horse racing trainer and friend.[46]

Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed Al Maktoum, daughter of Sheikh Maktoum of Dubai, attempted to escape to Goa, India. From there, she hoped to travel to the United States, where she planned to seek asylum but was caught by Indian special forces.[47][45] Her phone number appears on Feb. 25th, 2018, one day after her escape, but the phone was already discarded in a cafe bathroom in favour to a brand new phone and new sim cards.[45] Phones used by Latifa’s friends and family were soon added to the system. It is suspected UAE Pegasus surveillance of her friends’ phones helped Dubai to track Latifa’s escape.[45]

Christian Colombo, French soldier and a friend, and his girlfriend[45]

Juan Mayer, skydiving photographer and friend[45]

Lynda Bouchiki, skydiver and friend, events manager. Latifa chatted via phone with Bouchiki while fleeing.[45]

Sioned Taylor, a Briton skydiver and friend, maths teacher. Latifa chatted via phone with Taylor while fleeing.[45]

Alaa al-Siddiq (death 19 June 2021), Emirati human rights activist, executive director of human rights organisation ALQST and daughter of Muhammad Al-Siddiq, one of the UAE-94 pro-democracy political prisoners.[43] Following the 2011 Arab Spring, Alaa Al-Siddiq was self-exiled to Qatar then UK since 2012.[43] All her family members were stripped from their UAE nationality. When killed by a car accident in 2021 in the UK, UAE refused her body to be taken back to UAE for burial.[43]

Ahmed Mansoor, Emirati human rights and reformist blogger, confirmed hacked by Pegasus.[43] Arrested in 2011, pardoned, then arrested again in 2017 with 10 years sentences. Detained in dire conditions.

Over 3000 Qataris.[43]

European, Asian human rights activists supporting rights in Golf countries.[43]

Reactions

NSO Group’s response

Vetting and licence contract

NSO Group did not deny the presence of its spyware, responding to the report by stating they rigorously vetted its customers’ human rights records before allowing them to use its spy tools.[1] It says military-grade Pegasus is only supposed to be used to prevent serious crime and terrorism. NSO stated its purchasing client governments are bidden by a signed contract and licence, agreeing to terms of uses, and contractually limited to legitimate criminal or terrorist targets.[46] Once sold, NSO Group says it does not know nor can see how its client governments use its spyware.[46]

 

Involvement denial

NSO Group stated: “NSO does not operate the systems that it sells to vetted government customers, and does not have access to the data of its customers’ targets. NSO does not operate its technology, does not collect, nor possesses, nor has any access to any kind of data of its customers. Due to contractual and national security considerations, NSO cannot confirm or deny the identity of our government customers, as well as the identity of customers of which we have shut down systems.”[48]

 

The CEO of NSO Group categorically claimed that the list in question is unrelated to them, the source of the allegations can not be verified as a reliable one. “This is an attempt to build something on a crazy lack of information…It is fundamentally wrong with this investigation”[49] The owner of the company that developed the Pegasus Spyware categorically refutes all allegations, stating that the list of the phone numbers in question has nothing to do with the Pegasus Spyware.[49] NSO denied “false claims” about its clients’ activities, but said it would “continue to investigate all credible claims of misuse and take appropriate action”.[1]

 

Journalists/NGOs

Journalists around the world have expressed outrage at the use of anti-criminality tools against non-criminals, journalists, opposition representatives, and other civilians. Edward Snowden has called for governments to impose a global moratorium on the international spyware trade in order to avoid ubiquitous violation of privacy and associated abuses.[50]

 

Haaretz argued such invasive monitoring technology is the weapon of choice for autocratic governments, allowing continuous monitoring of opponents, preventing protests from the beginning before they are organised, and discouraging sources to share information with journalists.[51] This technology should, therefore, be shared only with countries with independent and solid rule of law.[51]

 

The Committee to Protect Journalists called for a critical reform of the surveillance software industry and market.[52]

 

The International Press Institute, an international press freedom network, denounced the abuse of spying on journalists, calling formal investigations and accountability.[53]

 

Tamer Almisshal [ar], an investigative journalist for Al Jazeera Arabic, said the “[The hacking of the Al Jazeera staffers’ and journalists’ phones is] a crime against journalism. Based on this spyware, journalists have been arrested, disappeared, or even killed. Khashoggi is just one example”.[54]

 

In a statement, the National Association of Hungarian Journalists [hu] said they were “shocked” by the revelations and also stated: “If this is the case, it is unacceptable, outrageous and illegal, full information must be disclosed to the public immediately”.[55]

 

In a tweet, the Press Club of India (PCI) issued a statement:

 

This is the first time in the history of this country that all pillars of our democracy — judiciary, Parliamentarians, media, executives & ministers — have been spied upon. This is unprecedented and the PCI condemns unequivocally. The snooping has been done for ulterior motives. What is disturbing is that a foreign agency, which has nothing to do with the national interest of the country, was engaged to spy on its citizens. This breeds distrust and will invite anarchy. The Govt should come out clean on this front and clarify.[56]

 

Similarly Editors Guild of India also released a statement against the alleged snooping by the Indian government. It states:

 

This act of snooping essentially conveys that journalism and political dissent are now equated with ‘terror’. How can a constitutional democracy survive if governments do not make an effort to protect freedom of speech and allows surveillance with such impunity?

 

It asked for a Supreme Court monitored enquiry into the matter, and further demanded that the inquiry committee should include people of impeccable credibility from different walks of life—including journalists and civil society—so that it can independently investigate the facts around the extent and intent of snooping using the services of Pegasus.[57][58]

 

Companies

Amazon has preemptively closed several instances used by NSO’s Pegasus malware to infect its targets.[59]

 

The CEO of WhatsApp Will Cathcart, called for a global moratorium on the use of unaccountable surveillance technology and defended the use of end-to-end encryption following the reports.[60][61]

 

National governments

Hungary

A statement from the office of Viktor Orbán in Hungary stated that they were not aware of any alleged data collection.[62]

 

India

The government has not denied the usage of Pegasus spyware in their response so far.[63] The official response of the Government of India to The Washington Post stated that “the allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people have no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever” and that such news reports were an attempt to “malign Indian democracy and it’s institutions”. They further stated that each case of interception, monitoring and decryption is approved by the Union Home Secretary and that there exists an oversight mechanism in the form of a review committee headed by the Union Cabinet Secretary and that any such interceptions have been done under the “due process of the law”.[62]

 

The former IT minister of India Ravi Shankar Prasad asked, “If more than 45 nations are using Pegasus as NSO has said, why is only India being targeted?”[64]

 

The Indian IT Minister Ashwini Vaishnaw in a statement in parliament stated that the reports were “highly sensational” and that they had “no factual basis”. He further stated that NSO themselves had rubbished the claims. He stated that the existence of numbers in a list was not sufficient evidence to indicate that the spyware was used and said that the report itself stated the same and without the physical examination of the phone such claims cannot be corroborated.[65]

 

The Minister of Home and Internal Security Amit Shah in a statement on his blog insinuated that this was an attempt to disrupt the monsoon session of the parliament and that the opposition parties were “jumping on a bandwagon” and were trying to “derail anything progressive that comes up in Parliament”. He stated that the report was an attempt to “derail India’s development trajectory through their conspiracies”.[66][63]

 

The head of the parliamentary standing committee on Information Technology and congress leader Shashi Tharoor ruled out Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) probe into alleged surveillance using the Pegasus software.[67]

 

Israel

Israel denied having access to the information gathered by NSO’s clients.[citation needed]

 

Morocco

The Moroccan government denied claims of acquiring and using Pegasus.[62]

 

Rwanda

Rwanda through a statement by Vincent Biruta, Minister of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation denied using Pegasus and claimed that accusations of the country using Pegasus and are part of an ongoing campaign to cause tensions between Rwanda and other countries, and to promote disinformation about Rwanda domestically and internationally.[62]

 

As of 20 July 2021, the governments of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Kazakhstan and Mexico have not responded to the reports.

 

Other reactions

In India the Indian National Congress accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi of “treason” and compromising national security following the release of the reports and called for the removal of Minister of Home and Internal Security Amit Shah and an investigation of the role of Prime Minister Narendra Modi into the affair.[68][69]

 

The Indian IT minister made a statement that similar claims were made in the past regarding Pegasus for WhatsApp which had no factual basis and was even denied by the Supreme Court of India.[70]

 

However, many of the statements made by the Indian IT minister were verified by the Internet Freedom Foundation and were not found to be accurate.[71]

 

West Bengal Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee alleged that the central government intends to “turn India into a surveillance state” where “democracy is in danger”.[72][73]

 

Government investigations

On 20 July 2021, it was reported that French prosecutors would investigate allegations that Moroccan intelligence services used Pegasus to spy on French journalists.[74]

References

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