An in-depth investigation by 17 major international news organizations claims that the Israeli cyber firm NSO Group has sold cellphone malware that infects iPhones and Android devices and extracts messages, photos and emails, and secretly activates microphones. According to a report India, one of the Pegasus customers, had also targeted a phone which was earlier in Prime Minister Imran Khan’s use through the malware. Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry has expressed concern on the report and said the unethical policies of the Modi government have “dangerously polarised India and the region”.
The NSO maintains that the Pegasus is only intended for use against criminals and terrorists. The media investigation has prepared a list of more than 50,000 hacked phone numbers operated by business executives, religious figures, academics, human rights activists, NGO employees and government officials, including cabinet ministers, presidents and prime ministers. The phone numbers of more than 180 journalists listed in the data belong to reporters, editors and executives from some of the most prestigious international newspapers and agencies. This refutes the claim that the hacking is aimed at “criminals and terrorists”. In fact the hacking malware itself can be used to commit crimes. A freelance Mexican reporter, Cecilio Pineda Birto, named in the list, was found to have been murdered as killers were able to locate him at a carwash. He was among Mexican journalists apparently selected for surveillance over a two-year period. As the spyware can be used to exactly locate an individual through the phone number, it has presumably been used to target a number of Palestinian resistance figures. The Pegasus also violates peoples’ privacy, making it easy to blackmail important individuals who can be forced to act upon directives that are illegal or against national interest.
The Pegasus poses a threat to well established smartphone companies by bringing down their ratings as it breaks into their secrecy codes and users lose confidence in their smartphones.
The PTI government is reportedly meditating to develop a new software for the federal ministers as a firewall against the Pegasus. This is a costly enterprise with doubtful outcome. It needs to be accompanied by raising the issue at world forums with like-minded countries for a global moratorium on the international spyware trade.