An investigation conducted by 17 international press vehicles, including the British newspaper Guardian, the american The Washington Post and 15 other international media partners revealed that authoritarian governments have spied on opponents using the Pegasus spyware, sold by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group.
The information was obtained by Forbidden Stories, a non-profit media organization based in Paris, and by Amnesty International through a massive leak of more than 50 phone numbers of people who have been investigated since 2016.
The NSO Group has for years claimed that its Pegasus spyware is used only to "investigate terrorism and crime" and "leave no traces of any kind". But an Amnesty International report points out that the program has been used for "widespread, persistent and continuous illegal surveillance and human rights abuses."
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Pegasus is malware that infects iPhones and Android devices to allow the tool's operators to extract messages, photos and emails, record calls and secretly activate microphones.
The data revealed by the leak details attacks that took place from 2014 to July 2021. “They also include so-called 'zero-click' attacks, which do not require any interaction from the target,” says Amnesty International.
One such hack even breached the security of a fully upgraded iPhone 12 running iOS 14.6 this month. According to the report, Pegasus was used on smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, executives and two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The group of media outlets will reveal the identity of the people being investigated in the coming days. “They include hundreds of executives, religious figures, academics, NGO officials, union leaders and government officials, including cabinet ministers, presidents and prime ministers,” says the Guardian.
The list also includes data from several members of the Arab royal family, "suggesting that the ruler may have instructed his intelligence agencies to explore the possibility of monitoring his own relatives."
Journalists include reporters and editors from the Financial Times, CNN, New York Times, France 24, The Economist, Associated Press and Reuters. One of those names is that of Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto, who was murdered in March 2017.
In response, the NSO Group called the allegations "exaggerated and baseless," reaffirmed that it does not operate licensed spyware for its customers and that it "has no insight" into their specific intelligence activities.
The company also said it will "continue to investigate all allegations of misuse and take appropriate action." The NSO's clients include 60 intelligence, military and law enforcement agencies in 40 countries — although the company does not confirm the identity of any of them.
In the list obtained by Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, most telephones were from Mexico, with more than 15 occurrences, including numbers of politicians, union representatives, journalists and government critics. Another large part of the data was from users in the Middle East, including Qatar, UAE, Bahrain and Yemen.
Investigators stress, however, that without forensic examination of the devices in question it is impossible to tell whether the phones have been subjected to an attempted or successful hack using Pegasus.
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