Pegasus: The New Global Weapon for Silencing...
On March 2, 2017, Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda took out his mobile phone and in a Facebook live broadcast spoke about alleged collusion between state and local police and the leader of a drug cartel. Two hours later, he was dead – shot at least six times by two men on a motorcycle. Pineda’s phone was also never found, as it had disappeared from the crime scene by the time the authorities had arrived.
Two weeks after Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey in October 2018, the digital rights organization Citizen Lab reported that a close friend of Khashoggi, Omar Abdulaziz, had been targeted with Pegasus software developed by NSO Group Technologies -- an Israeli technology firm.
According to a new Forbidden Stories investigation, at least 180 journalists around the world have been selected as targets by clients of the cybersurveillance company NSO Group.
Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International had access to a leak of more than 50,000 records of phone numbers that NSO clients selected for surveillance. According to an analysis of these records by Forbidden Stories and its partners, the phones of at least 180 journalists were selected in 20 countries by at least 10 NSO clients. These government clients range from autocratic to democratic and span the entire world. As the Pegasus Project show, many of them have not been afraid to select journalists, human rights defenders, political opponents, businesspeople and even heads of state as targets of this invasive technology.
Stating “contractual and national security considerations” NSO Group wrote in a letter to Forbidden Stories and its media partners that it “cannot confirm or deny the identity of our government customers.”
The leaked phone numbers, which Forbidden Stories and its partners analyzed over months, reveal for the first time the staggering scale of surveillance of journalists and human rights defenders – despite NSO Group’s repeated claims that its tools are exclusively used for targeting serious criminals and terrorists – and confirm the fears of press advocates about the scope of spyware being used against journalists.
“In the last few days, the world has rightly been outraged by the systematic targeting of human rights activists, journalists and lawyers revealed by the Pegasus Project. Not only does it expose the risk and harm to those individuals unlawfully targeted, but also the extremely destabilising consequences on global human rights and the security of the digital environment at large,” said Agnes Callamard , secretary general of Amnesty International. “It is about controlling public narrative, resisting scrutiny, suppressing any dissenting voice.” She added: “Private companies like NSO Group have shown they will flout their human rights responsibilities with impunity, all the while profiting from human rights abuse.
On 12 August, UN human rights experts called on all States to impose a global moratorium on the sale and transfer of surveillance technology until they have put in place robust regulations that guarantee its use in compliance with international human rights standards.
“It is highly dangerous and irresponsible to allow the surveillance technology and trade sector to operate as a human rights-free zone,” the experts warned. “We are deeply concerned that highly sophisticated intrusive tools are being used to monitor, intimidate and silence human rights defenders, journalists and political opponents,” the experts said. “Such practices violate the rights to freedom of expression, privacy and liberty, possibly endanger the lives of hundreds of individuals, imperil media freedom, and undermine democracy, peace, security and international cooperation.”
“We also urge Israel, as the NSO Group’s home country, to disclose fully what measures it took to review NSO export transactions in light of its own human rights obligations,” they added. “It is the duty of States to verify that companies like the NSO Group do not sell or transfer technology to or contract with States and entities that are like to use them to violate human rights.”
Two years ago the then UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Opinion and Expression published a report on the dangerous impact of surveillance technology on human rights and recommended an immediate moratorium on its sale and transfer until international regulations incorporating human rights safeguards were adopted. The international community failed to heed his call.