Evidence shows thousands of activists, journalists, and lawyers have been targeted.
By Ashima Sethi
Earlier this week, a comprehensive and shocking report was published by 14 foreign media bodies including The Washington Post, France’s Le Monde, and The Guardian, detailing how Israeli surveillance firm NSO Group‘s software ‘Pegasus‘ has led to one of the biggest cyber leaks in recent history.
It is alleged that the software targeted tens of thousands of phone numbers, using malware to hack and extract information that was then reportedly sold to authoritarian governments around the world, putting thousands of activists, journalists, politicians, and lawyers at risk.
Paris-based NGO Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International also played key roles in compiling the report, with the Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech, Danna Ingleton, stating: “Our forensic analysis has uncovered irrefutable evidence that through iMessage zero-click attacks, NSO’s spyware has successfully infected iPhone 11 and iPhone 12 models. Thousands of iPhones have potentially been compromised.”
Although NSO Group have denied any wrongdoing, and that the claims brought forth by global media are “full of wrong assumptions,” the report has unsurprisingly caused uproar around the world as it is believed that over 50,000 numbers have been compromised but there is no way of knowing just how many phones have actually been hacked. NSO Group have insisted that their software has been developed only for use against criminals and terrorist organisations, with the information gathered only made available to military, law enforcement, and intelligence agencies that have a proven track record when it comes to human rights.
According to the BBC, several notable individuals are on the list of those who’ve been hacked by Pegasus, including Jamal Khashoggi, a vocal critic of the Saudi government who was brutally murdered inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in 2018. The investigation also led to the discovery that several people in his closest circle were also targeted in the months leading up to his death, including his wife Hanan Elatr, his fiancé Hatice Cegniz who was pictured outside the consulate on the day he was killed, and his close friend Wadah Khanfar, ex-Director General of Al Jazeera in Qatar.
In India, news of the spyware leak has caused anger, with many calling it a ‘threat to Indian democracy.’ Dozens of individuals have been listed in as targets, including Umar Khalid, leader of the Democratic Students’ Union and a student activist at Jawaharlal University in Delhi who had charges filed against him after the student uprising. It is reported that police used evidence gathered from his mobile phone to press charges, with no clear indication how the information was gathered.
Information about how the leak is affecting India has been compiled by media consortium The Wire, which has confirmed that over 300 Indian numbers were on the list as potential Pegasus targets, some of which belong to Congress leader Rahul Gandhi; the nation’s new IT Minister, Ashwini Vaishnaw; and poll strategist Prashant Kishor, who is known for his work on the BJP campaign strategy and more recently, his work with Mamata Banerjee.
These accusations about the data leak have left many wondering, what was the Indian government’s role in this situation? Did they verify the use of Pegasus and if so, under what conditions? The situation is looking like it will lead to an investigative probe, with Congress spokesman Randeep Surjewala stating at a recent press conference: “Is spying on India’s security forces, judiciary, cabinet ministers, opposition leaders, journalists and other activities through a foreign entity’s spyware not treason, and an inexcusable dismantling of national security?” PM Modi’s office have yet to comment.
This is not the first time that NSO Group and Pegasus have found themselves in hot water. Facebook is in the middle of a lawsuit against the group over claims that they used the Pegasus software to hack into WhatsApp‘s infrastructure to access phones. Facebook claims they have evidence that over 100 activists, journalists, and other public figures have been targeted by the NSO Group.
Featured image credit: The Wire