Five things we learnt about Pegasus spyware on Sunday evening
As many as 16 media outlets across the world, including The Washington Post, The Guardian and The Wire in India have taken lid off an Israeli spyware used by govts to conduct surveillance on citizens
Late on Sunday evening in a coordinated release across time zones, 16 media outlets began releasing the results of an investigation into spyware Pegasus sold by Israel’s NSO Group to governments and intelligence agencies.
Phones can be transformed into surveillance devices, with someone thousands of miles away silently extracting their messages, photos and location, activating their microphone to record them in real time.
Such are the capabilities of Pegasus, the spyware manufactured by NSO Group, the Israeli purveyor of weapons of mass surveillance, reported The Washington Post.
It is estimated that the spyware costs around Rs 60 Crore (presumably per annum) for conducting surveillance on 50 phone numbers. The prohibitive cost also rules out use by private agencies.
The Israeli company in a statement denied the charge of surveillance and rogue clients. It claimed it did not operate the system and was not privy to what clients did with the system. It also maintained that it did not have ‘ regular access’ to the clients’ data But it still admitted that in the last 12 months it had blacklisted two clients and ‘shut off’ the system.
The company has 60 clients in 40 countries including India. The company has close ties with the Israeli Government and Defence Services and in the past claimed that its clients were strictly vetted by the Israeli Government.
This is what we know so far :
1. Hundreds of Journalists including the Editor of Financial Times and journalists working for CNN, NYT, Al Jazeera besides editors and journalists in India were targeted. The WaPo and The Wire have confirmed that the founding editor of The Wire Siddharth Varadarajan and former EPW editor Paranjoy Guha Thakurta are among those targeted in India. Two women close to the murdered Washington Post journalist, who was killed in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, were also in the list.
2. The list includes the numbers of heads of government and heads of state, heads of intelligence agencies, diplomats, civil liberties and human rights activists besides other innocent people. The investigation calls the bluff that the spyware was used to keep track of suspected terrorists and criminals.
3. The investigation was hampered by the difficulties associated with getting physical access to the devices. But still 67 numbers and devices were examined forensically and evidence of surveillance was found in 37 of them.
4. The investigation has been able to establish the identities of a thousand people on the list, among them 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists and over 600 politicians and government officials including ministers and security officials.
5. The Washington Post quoted Siddharth Varadarajan, founding editor of The Wire, recalling in a recent interview after being informed that his phone was tapped about a minister in Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government who had displayed an unusual concern about surveillance when they met. The minister first moved the meeting from one location to another at the last moment, then switched off his phone and told Varadarajan to do the same.
Then “the two phones were put in a room and music was put on in that room … and I thought: ‘Boy, this guy is really paranoid. But maybe he was being sensible,'" Varadarajan said in a recent interview.