Pegasus Project claims NSO spyware targeted journalists and activists

19 Jul 2021

Image: © suebsiri/Stock.adobe.com

Spyware from the Israeli firm was used to violate human rights, according to an investigation involving Amnesty and 17 media organisations.

Amnesty International published a technical report yesterday (18 July) regarding the methodology of The Pegasus Project, in what it states will be one of the first of many reports regarding the “weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent”.

The Pegasus Project is an international collaboration investigating the claimed use of spyware developed by Israeli company NSO Group against journalists, activists and government officials.

There are more than 80 journalists from 17 media organisations in 10 countries involved in the investigation. The group is led by Paris-based media non-profit Forbidden Stories with technical support provided by Amnesty International.

The non-profit stated the investigation began with a leak of documents that Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International had access to.

In this list of more than 50,000 selected targets by clients of NSO Group, they found the names of some colleagues and journalists that had worked on past collaborative investigations. This led them to share access to the data with the other media organisations in the Forbidden Stories consortium.

“Clearly, [NSO’s] actions pose larger questions about the wholesale lack of regulation that has created a wild west of rampant abusive targeting of activists and journalists,” said Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International.

“Until this company and the industry as a whole can show it is capable of respecting human rights, there must be an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer and use of surveillance technology.”

The NSO Group is a technology and surveillance company that “develops technology to prevent and investigate terror and crime”. It claims its products are used exclusively by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

NSO said the Pegasus report is full of false accusations, wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.

“Their sources have supplied them with information which has no factual basis, as evident by the lack of supporting documentation for many of their claims,” said the issued response.

“In fact, these allegations are so outrageous and far from reality, that NSO is considering a defamation lawsuit.”

Amnesty International provided the technical support for the project through forensic investigations on mobile phones to identify traces of the NSO spyware.

It said that at the centre of this investigation is the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware which, when installed on a victim’s phone, “allows an attacker complete access to the device’s messages, emails, media, microphone, camera, calls and contacts”.

Amnesty published its methodology at-length, alongside open-source mobile forensics tools and detailed technical indicators, “in order to assist information security researchers and civil society with detecting and responding to these serious threats”.

The report documents the evolution of Pegasus spyware attacks since 2018, with details on the spyware’s infrastructure, including more than 700 Pegasus-related domains.

“These revelations blow apart any claims by NSO that such attacks are rare and down to rogue use of their technology. While the company claims its spyware is only used for legitimate criminal and terror investigations, it’s clear its technology facilitates systemic abuse,” said Callamard.

One example of their investigation included an analysis of the phone of Moroccan activist Maati Monjib, who was one of the activists targeted as documented in Amnesty International’s 2019 report.

It detailed that on further analysis, suspicious redirects were noted in Monjib’s Safari browsing history. In one case there was a redirect to an odd-looking URL after Monjib attempted to visit Yahoo.

“We detail how we determined these redirections to be the result of network injection attacks performed either through tactical devices, such as rogue cell towers, or through dedicated equipment placed at the mobile operator,” stated the report.

The project identified at least 180 journalists in 20 countries to be the focus of political targeting by the NSO spyware, including at least 40 journalists from nearly every major media outlet in India.

Forensic tests stated the phones of Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, co-founders of independent online outlet The Wire, were infected with Pegasus spyware as recently as June 2021.

“This should be a wake-up call for governments to step up and hold spyware developers like the NSO Group accountable for their role in stoking the flames and profiting off human rights abuses,” said Attila Tomaschek, a digital privacy expert at the company ProPrivacy.

“The private spyware industry is only going to continue to grow, and its influence will intensify if this space remains as alarmingly unregulated as it is today. Tech companies need to ensure their products are safe to use in the face of increasingly sophisticated spyware that has the potential to be abused in such a widespread and frightening manner.”

Data use in targeting terrorism has come under fire before, such as the campaign ‘Reclaim Your Face’ launched by a European Citizens’ Initiative. This group challenged plans for public biometric surveillance included in the Security Union package presented by the European Commission in December 2020.

Amnesty stated that over the next week, media partners of The Pegasus Project including The Guardian, Le Monde, Süddeutsche Zeitung and The Washington Post will run a series of stories showing the details of their NSO investigation.

“The widespread violations Pegasus facilitates must stop. Our hope is the damning evidence published over the next week will lead governments to overhaul a surveillance industry that is out of control,” said Etienne Maynier, a technologist at Amnesty International’s security lab.

Callamard stated: “As a first step, NSO Group must immediately shut down clients’ systems where there is credible evidence of misuse. The Pegasus Project provides this in abundance.”

In a response to The Guardian, the Indian government said: “The questionnaire sent to the government of India indicates that the story being crafted is one that is not only bereft of facts but also founded in pre-conceived conclusions.

“It seems you are trying to play the role of an investigator, prosecutor as well as jury.”

The project also linked the NSO spyware to family members of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in Istanbul on 2 October 2018.

The NSO Group responded to the Pegasus Project allegations saying that its “technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi” and that it had previously investigated this claim and found it lacked substance.

Sam Cox is a journalist at Silicon Republic covering sci-tech news

editorial@siliconrepublic.com