A few days ago, a large journalistic investigation was published, in which 17 media outlets took part. The investigation was titled "Pegasus: The New Global Weapon to Silence Journalists" and it mentioned the Pegasus spyware.
This software, according to journalists, hacks phones from a distance, downloads correspondence, photos and videos, and can also activate the camera and microphone without the knowledge of the owners.
Investigators determined that 180 of their colleagues from 20 countries were the objects of Pegasus surveillance, and the full list of potential targets is more than 50 thousand people.
How does Pegasus work and who created it?
Pegasus software is a product of the Israeli NSO Group, founded by former members of the Israel Army's Military Intelligence Directorate.
The idea was that Pegasus would become a tool to fight crime around the world (including terrorism, money laundering and drug trafficking).
The essence of its work is to search for so-called zero-day vulnerabilities. We are talking about previously unrevealed shortcomings in the operating system that allow access to devices.
Initially, in order to hack the device, Pegasus needed the active participation of the target. For example, in a person's clicks on links sent. But after a while it changed the approach. Pegasus has adopted a zero-click tactic that does not require interaction with the device owner.
The Guardian writes that in 2019, WhatsApp revealed that NSO software was being used to send malware to over 1,400 phones using a zero-day vulnerability.
“By simply making a WhatsApp call to the target device, Pegasus malware can be installed on the phone even if the target never answered the call. Most recently, NSO began exploiting vulnerabilities in Apple's iMessage software, providing backdoor access to hundreds of millions of iPhones. Apple says that is constantly updating its software to prevent such attacks," the newspaper writes.
The development of Pegasus is confirmed by the BBC, senior fellow at the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto Bill Marshak, who was the first to discover that his iPhone was hacked.
"NSO Group sells Pegasus software in dozens of countries. First, an iPhone user, in order to be tapped, had to click on the link thrown to him in order to start hacking, but now this is not required. You are not doing anything at all, your phone is on the table, but at any moment it can be hacked," he is quoted as saying.
The scale of wiretapping
According to the investigation, the use of Pegasus against journalists and human rights defenders could have been sanctioned by the governments of 11 countries.
Specific names are given.
For example, in Azerbaijan, Pegasus targets employees of the local Radio Liberty and the former head of the RS bureau in Baku, Khadija Ismayilova.
“There are people in this country who consider an ordinary journalist as dangerous as a person suspected of terrorism,” Forbidden Stories quotes Hungarian investigative journalist Szabolcs Panyi.
In India, investigators claim the phone of journalist Paranjoy Takurta was hacked, who was investigating the finances of the late Dryubai Atamani, the country's former richest man.
FS writes that some of the first cases of infection of journalists' gadgets were identified in Mexico in 2015 and 2016.
Specifically, in January 2016, Carmen Aristegi, an investigative journalist based in Mexico and founder of Aristegui Noticias, began receiving suspicious links after publishing an investigation into property belonging to former Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto.
Another high-profile case that investigators have unearthed is the infection of the phones of acquaintances of Saudi opposition journalist Jamal Khashoggi, killed in Istanbul in 2018.
If we talk about the general scale
Pegasus spyware, according to the investigation, could be used by the authorities of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, UAE, Rwanda and Saudi Arabia.
What does NSO say?
They all deny.
NSO Group said its software is designed to fight criminals and terrorists and is only supplied to states that respect human rights.
"NSO Group sells technology only to law enforcement and intelligence services of trustworthy authorities for the sole purpose of preventing crime and terrorist attacks in order to save lives," the BBC quoted the company as saying.
The Israeli Defense Ministry said Israel permits the sale of cybersecurity-related products only to government agencies and only to fight crime and terrorism.
"If it is found that [NSO Group products] have been used in violation of the terms of the license or the assurances of the purchasing countries, we will take appropriate action," the Israeli Defense Ministry said in a statement.
An NSO Group spokesman later told the BBC the following:
"If you get drunk and run over someone, nobody blames the car manufacturer, we blame the driver."
That is, the company noted that accusing them of hacking the smartphones of oppositionists and journalists is like blaming an automobile plant for an accident.