Recent reports of spyware use are cause for alarm
In neighbouring India, opposition Congress lawmakers in the Indian parliament are at loggerheads with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), as anti-cybercrime firms report claims that opposition leader Rahul Gandhi was “interest to clients” by Pegasus spyware along with 300 politicians, journalists, human rights defenders, and government officials in India.
Recently, a consortium of 17 global media outlets published leaked reports stating that Pegasus spyware developed by the Israeli firm NSO was used to hack into the phones of thousands of people across the world.
The tsunami of global outrage sparked after non-profit journalism organization Forbidden Stories released a major new investigation into NSO Group on July 18. The investigation exposed widespread global targeting with the Pegasus spyware.
On request of Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, Canada-based Citizen Lab undertook an independent investigation based on forensic methodology. The forensic investigation reveals the dark surveillance market of spyware manufacturers used against “interest to clients.”
Allegations that mostly authoritarian governments used phone spyware or malware capable of spying on journalists, critics, opposition, and heads of state have “exposed a global human rights crisis,” according to Amnesty International.
Pegasus can access both Android phones and iPhones, keeping the user unaware of the secret surveillance. Data thieves stealthily retrieve call lists, SMS, contact lists, photos, and geo-location from phones without the knowledge of the user.
This is the world’s only organized secret surveillance -- a crime which pays back in huge cash. The spyware masters earn millions of dollars against installation, service charges, and other fees. Diving deep into the issue of spyware, it is indeed a very expensive electronic spy.
NSO comes from three founding members’ initial names in 2010. The firm employs 500 dedicated IT experts in command and control centres in the client’s hub. The small team of the former Israeli intelligence agency Mossad Special Unit produced the controversial product for clients mostly in authoritarian and despotic regimes in Latin America, Africa, Middle-East, South Asia, and beyond.
The NSO website describes that their company creates technology to help governments and agencies prevent terrorism, break up paedophilia on the dark web, and prevent sex trafficking, money laundering, drug trafficking, and other organized crimes across the globe.
In a naive statement, the NSO official website says that the spyware can help rescue missing or abducted children, survivors trapped under building collapses, and victims of natural disasters.
Besides Pegasus, there are four other known manufacturers which also produce spyware and provide services to clients. The other products in the surveillance market are Dropout Jeep, RCS Android, Exodus, and PG-GEO. Nevertheless, Pegasus is an all-in-one spyware and has reason for being expensive.
In 2020, media rights organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF) branded NSO Group as a “digital predator” and reiterated its aim to punish NSO for the cyber crimes which infringed on privacy and freedom of speech.
In the United States and Pakistan, Cambridge Analytica misused intimate personal Facebook data to micro-target and influence swing voters in the last elections of Donald Trump, and Imran Khan’s in Pakistan.
It was alarming for civil society, when Amnesty launched a ground-breaking report in November 2019 on how the surveillance-based business models of companies like Facebook and Google undermine fundamental rights, including the right to privacy and freedom of expression.
Nonetheless, rights organizations expressed a clear danger for freedom of opinion and expression, especially preying on journalism, which is guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Rights groups around the world called for accountability in spyware sales and urged nations to wake up to a responsible international standard for snooping.
Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He can be reached at [email protected]; Twitter @saleemsamad.