Much attention has been paid recently to bombshell allegations that Israeli-created spyware may have been used to target journalists, dissidents, and other enemies of the state. But the Pegasus scandal is a mere microcosm of the larger issue of governments using private companies for surveillance operations.
On July 18, the Guardian and 16 other media outlets began publishing a series of stories about the Israeli-based NSO Group, alleging that foreign governments used the company’s Pegasus software to surveil at least 180 journalists and numerous other targets around the world.
Developed by former members of the elite Israeli Unit 8200—comparable to the U.S. National Security Agency—the Pegasus software allegedly infects iPhones and Androids, enabling operators to extract messages, photos, and emails; record calls; and activate microphones in secret.
Alleged possible targets of Pegasus surveillance include the slain Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi, French president Emmanuel Macron, and Indian opposition legislator Rahul Gandhi, along with numerous others. NSO explicitly denies that its software was “associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi.”
Allegations about the NSO Group’s wrongdoing have been in the media for years. Facebook sued the NSO Group in federal court in 2019 for allegedly exploiting a vulnerability in WhatsApp allowing Pegasus users to spy on the calls and messages of victims, including journalists and human rights activists. This case is pending appeal in the 9th Circuit, where the NSO Group has argued that it should have sovereign immunity from civil litigation.
But while Pegasus was already public knowledge, this week’s reporting casts doubt on the NSO Group’s longstanding contention that it only intends for the software to be used in counterterrorism and other major criminal probes. The Guardian and other media reportedly obtained a copy of the NSO Group’s targeting database, which has a list of 50,000 phone numbers that clients may have targeted for surveillance—suggesting that the only way the NSO Group didn’t know the identity of its clients’ targets was through willful ignorance.
The NSO Group has continued to deny wrongdoing, saying that media outlets have misinterpreted the data.
“The [reports are] full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories that raise serious doubts about the reliability and interests of the sources. It seems like the ‘unidentified sources’ have supplied information that has no factual basis and are far from reality,” the NSO Group stated. “After checking their claims, we firmly deny the false allegations made in their report. Their sources have supplied them with information which has no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims.
“In fact, these allegations are so outrageous and far from reality, that NSO is considering a defamation lawsuit.”
Law enforcement in France and Hungary have already launched investigations into the use of Pegasus, and the Israeli Parliament’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee has formed a committee that will look into the matter.
BY KEN SILVA