Authoritarian governments have used sophisticated hacking software to spy on the smartphones of journalists and human rights activists in numerous countries. This is apparent from a study by ‘Knack’ and ‘Le Soir’ in collaboration with journalist collective Forbidden Stories and fourteen international media partners.
The story’s centerpiece turns out to be the Israeli company NSO Group, which sells spyware to countries and government services. This allows them to hack mobile phones remotely and then extract all information from them, such as passwords, text messages, photos, and contact lists.
The software can also turn on the microphone and camera remotely or take screenshots unseen. According to the company itself, the spyware is basically intended to map “terror organizations, drug cartels, traffickers, pedophile circles and other criminal syndicates”.
But the ‘Pegasus Project’ shows that the technology is also being misused by many countries that are customers of NSO Group, writes ‘Knack’. The investigative journalists who participated in the project came to that conclusion after a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers was leaked. They had been selected as potential targets for cyber espionage by NSO Group customers.
10 heads of state and government leaders
The journalists were able to identify who they belonged to from more than a thousand phone numbers in 50 countries: academics, lawyers, doctors, trade union leaders, diplomats, more than 180 journalists, at least 85 human rights activists, and more than 600 politicians and government officials – including at least 10 heads of state and government leaders.
Some of the identified phones were further investigated with the help of Amnesty International Security Lab. It found that 37 phones showed traces of the spyware called Pegasus. In addition, the infection often happened shortly after the phone number was put on the leaked list. For 30 other phones, the forensic analysis was inconclusive.
“Weapon of repression for governments”
“This project reveals how NSO’s spyware is a weapon of repression for governments. Journalists and activists can be harmed that way,” said Dana Ingleton, Amnesty Tech’s co-director. “The number of journalists being targeted is staggering and shows how Pegasus is being used to attack press freedom and endanger journalists. NSO’s claim that its tools are only used to fight crime and terrorism is in tatters.”
NSO emphasizes that it does not develop the Pegasus itself: it only provides licenses to countries and government services. The company denies that the leaked list of phone numbers has anything to do with its Pegasus system.