Angry White House Questions Israel About Sales of Pegasus Surveillance Software - Report
14:47 GMT 30.07.2021 (Updated: 16:48 GMT 30.07.2021)
The Israel-based NSO Group first hit the headlines in 2016, when it was accused of helping the United Arab Emirates spy on a dissident. NSO was founded in 2010 by Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie and is based in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv, a hub for Israel’s hi-tech industries.
President Joe Biden has reportedly raised concerns with Israel about allegations the NSO Group sold its Pegasus
surveillance software to several governments who used it to monitor journalists and activists.
According to American news website, Axios
, a top Biden administration official, Brett McGurk, raised the issue in a meeting last week with Israeli defence ministry official, Zohar Palti.
Axios and the Washington Post claim that Palti reassured McGurk that the matter is being taken seriously by the Israeli government, which was looking at restricting the export of cyber warfare tools such as Pegasus.
In Hungary, opposition MPs demanded an inquiry after an investigation by a group of media outlets claimed Viktor Orban’s government bought the Pegasus malware to spy on journalists, politicians and businessmen who had criticised the party in power.
An investigation by The Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde and several other media outlets, published on Sunday, 18 July, suggested NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware can switch on a phone's camera or microphone and steal data from the phone without the owner being aware.
Pegasus can be installed remotely without the need to trick a user into downloading it and, once it is on, the phone is in effect a pocket spy.
It can access WhatsApp messages, emails, text messages, GPS data and the phone’s contacts book. Pegasus gives those conducting surveillance on a target the ability not just to follow the subject and find out who he or she is talking to and about what, but also to gain access to compromising images and information which can be used either for blackmail or extortion.
The news organisations said a leak from Forbidden Stories, a not-for-profit journalism group based in Paris, suggested more than 50,000 smartphone numbers had been identified by NSO, 15,000 of which were in Mexico and reportedly included the number of a murdered journalist, Cecilio Pineda Birto.
Among the numbers on the list are those belonging to prominent members of Arab royal families, 65 global business executives, 85 human rights activists, 189 journalists and more than 600 politicians, including presidents, prime ministers and cabinet ministers.
The journalists on the list worked for Agence France-Presse, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, El Pais, the Associated Press, Le Monde, Bloomberg, The Economist, and Reuters.
Pegasus is understood to have been sold to the governments of Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, most of which have been accused of human rights abuses or interfering with press freedom.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi denied spying on 300 journalists and politicians and said "allegations regarding government surveillance on specific people has no concrete basis or truth associated with it whatsoever."
NSO has always claimed the software was designed to track terrorists and criminals.
In an interview with the Times Of India
an NSO spokesman said: "We only sell to governments and then, only to law enforcement and intelligence organisations of the governments. Due diligence is done - we subscribe to all UN guiding principles before and after selling."