Coming Soon to a Phone Near You

The Caspian Post
The latest Pegasus spyware revelations.

In Greek mythology, Pegasus is a divine winged horse that somehow manages to be the offspring of Poseidon (God of the sea) and Medusa (the bewitching Gorgon with snakes for hair). In Eurasia, Pegasus is also a low-cost airline with budget flights around the region via Turkey. But, in geopolitics, a new ‘Pegasus’ has taken wing as a form of high-performance spyware. The idea of hacking phones is nothing new, but Pegasus appears to be the most powerful spyware ever created. It can turn your mobile device into a “24-hour surveillance device” that can film using your camera, relay your messages and photos to the hacker, and record what you say. Worse still, it can often burrow into your phone through bugs in mainstream programmes without even needing you to click a link in a dodgy email. This is no ordinary criminal scam, but a piece of industrial-scale espionage software created by Israeli tech company NSO, which describes itself as providing “cyber intelligence for global security and stability.”   


The idea is a monitoring tool that identifies and prevents terrorism, and NSO has declared that they only sell  espionage products to “vetted government bodies.” However, alarm bells are ringing amongst human rights campaigners at the discovery that many of the phones infected appear to belong to opposition figures, dissidents, or journalists. Such fears are nothing new: the University of Toronto’s CitizenLab has been monitoring the spyware since 2016 and for, the tech-savvy, their 2018 report is a fascinating tale of their online cat-and-mouse investigation.    


What caught the world off guard this week was news from Forbidden Stories. Along with Amnesty International, they have been examining a leaked listing of some 50,000 numbers thought to have been infected with Pegasus, most notably in Mexico and the Middle East. While NSO denies that the 50,000 numbers represent phones targeted with Pegasus, the correlation appears convincing to many analysts. Of these numbers, at least 10 were heads of state, while over 180 appear to have been journalists in various countries from India to France, Hungary to Morocco. In the Caspian region, examples have been found in Turkey, Azerbaijan, and Kazakhstan. In Turkey, it appears that Istanbul’s former public prosecutor İrfan Fidan, and others investigating the 2018 murder of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, were also under surveillance – possibly by Saudi agents. In Azerbaijan, those targeted include Meydan TV journalist Sevinj Vaqifqizi and one of the country’s best-known investigative reporters, Khadija Ismailova. The list of Kazakh victims has yet to be made public, though it’s expected to be released in the coming week.  


The issue of mass surveillance first came to significant public notice in 2013 when computer intelligence consultant Edward Snowden revealed widespread snooping by his former employer, the USA’s National Security Agency (NSA). Rather than being rewarded as a whistle-blower, Snowden was considered a traitor. Seeking asylum, he fled to Russia, even though a United States Court of Appeals found that the NSA surveillance had been illegal. At the time, Snowden stated through the civil liberties group ACLU that “Society can only understand and control [the problems of unaccountable mass surveillance] through robust, open, and informed debate.” Yet, despite being a regular hobbyhorse for political comedians like Russell Brand, and the subject of a 2016 Oliver Stone movie,  Snowden’s remarkable revelations didn’t raise the level of widespread public debate and disquiet that might have been expected. This has led some observers to believe that the issue of broad-spectrum surveillance has been deliberately suppressed from public discourse. The fact that Pegasus has recently become an international issue is perhaps because the primary users of this particular software appear to be governments towards whom the mainstream Western media is frequently antagonistic. However, the case is clearly the tip of a very dangerous iceberg.    


Commenting on the latest Pegasus revelations (July 19, 2021), Snowden himself told the Guardian that the development of for-profit spyware was in the same moral ballpark as engineering new forms of Covid specifically to defeat vaccines or allowing an open global trade in nuclear weapons. Such malware businesses should be banned, he suggested, before 50,000 victims become 50 million. That could happen alarmingly soon. In the meantime, don’t all societies need to wake up and start having urgent conversations as to who has what rights to snoop on whom? What, we need to ask, are the acceptable limits on state surveillance?