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Governments that spy on politicians, journalists and activists

Loading player In a new investigation published in the New Yorker, US journalist Ronan Farrow revealed that governments in at least 45 countries use commercial software from Israeli company NSO Group to spy on crime suspects, as well as activists, journalists and politicians. That the authorities of several states were exploiting Pegasus, the main product offered by NSO in this way, had already been disclosed by other journalists and activists in recent years, but Farrow's article shows that this practice is more widespread than it is. it was thought, even in Europe, and that it is also used as a method of espionage between various countries.

Pegasus is a “spyware” – that is a program that is installed on the computer, smartphone or other device in order to obtain information on who uses it – and it is particularly effective: it allows you to collect emails, contact lists, audio recordings, images , videos and passwords, but also to activate cameras and microphones to record what is happening around the device, listen to its calls and capture its position without the owner noticing.

Pegasus, in fact, exploits the vulnerabilities already present in the most popular operating systems to implement a so-called “zero-click” attack, a method that does not require any action by the person being spied to enter his devices.

NSO is the largest and most influential company that sells products to governments that enable zero-click attacks, but it is not the only one: at least three other Israeli companies – Paragon, Candiru and Cognyte Software Ltd. – have developed no click hacking tools or offered them to customers. The entire commercial spyware industry – which is highly developed in Israel due to the excellent capabilities of its intelligence services, where most of the startup founders in the sector come from – is worth at least $ 12 billion and operates in a gray area. , both legal and ethical.

In fact, if these technologies are mainly advertised as a method to help law enforcement agencies to prevent crimes and terrorist attacks in a context in which criminals have access to communication routes that are increasingly difficult to intercept because they are encrypted, several investigations in recent years have highlighted which, once adopted, can also be used very easily to spy on the opposition, inconvenient journalists, activists, or officials of other states.

In his investigation, Farrow points out that Pegasus was installed on the device of about sixty people linked to the cause of Catalan independence, including three MEPs. Previously, the spyware was also found on the cell phones of people close to Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist killed in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Istanbul in 2018, and Javier Valdez Cárdenas, a Mexican reporter who was murdered while investigating drug cartels in the country. .

– Read also: Mass wiretapping of Catalan politicians

By arguing that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris want to put human rights at the center of their foreign policy, the US Department of Commerce last November banned US companies from having any business relationship with the NSO, unless explicitly permitted by the government. The decision had been widely criticized by the company, not only because the United States itself had tested their spyware, and then decided not to adopt them, a few years earlier, but also because the CIA had bought Pegasus on behalf of the Djibouti government so that help her in the fight against terrorism despite the country's long history of human rights violations.

The founder of the company, Shalev Hulio, also pointed out that his company has never sold software to countries that the United States does not already do business with, and that it is also used in democratic states: in Europe, they are known to use software. its services are the law enforcement agencies of Germany, Poland, Hungary and Belgium.

The company has also been fiercely defended by the Israeli government, which has tried to pressure Washington to lift sanctions. The relationship between NSO and the Israeli government is very close: the government gives consent to every contract that the company signs with foreign institutions and, as Ronen Bergman and Mark Mazzetti wrote in a long investigation in the New York Times, over time Israel has begun to use Pegasus as a bargaining chip in its diplomatic relations. Mexico and Panama, for example, began voting in favor of Israel at the United Nations after gaining access to Pegasus, and access to this technology would also be included in the negotiations of the Abrahamic Accords, with which Israel normalized in 2020. its relations with some neighboring Arab states, formerly long-standing enemies.

It's not just the US that is exerting legal pressure on the company, though. In 2019, WhatsApp sued NSO, accusing it of exploiting a vulnerability in the messaging service to spy on 1,400 devices. In November 2021, Apple also sued the Israeli company against its surveillance practices. The defense of NSO is based on the assertion that the company would not have taken a direct part in the operations and would have no power over what governments do with its tools once sold: a claim that however, according to a former employee of the company interviewed from Farrow, it's fake.

Even in the Farrow investigation, however, Hulio defends his company's business. On the one hand, he says, competition has far fewer moral scruples – whether it's from companies founded in countries like China, Russia or Singapore or private hackers willing to forcibly break into devices in exchange for fairly low sums by industry standards. government – while NSO says it has turned down more than 90 customers, giving up hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue for ethical reasons. On the other hand, NSO perceives itself as an arms trafficking company that finds itself in spite of itself operating in an unregulated sector. “The Geneva Conventions exist for the use of weapons. I truly believe there should be a convention between countries that should agree with each other on the correct use of cyberwarfare tools, ”said Hulio.

– Read also: The investigation into the smartphones of journalists and activists spied on by governments