The Pegasus Spyware and Its Danger to the Freedom of Press and Dissidents

Pegasus has already inflicted damage as it was recently discovered that governments had used it to spy on members of the press and even other governments including top government leadership.

The Pegasus Spyware and Its Danger to the Freedom of Press and Dissidents
Pegasus Spyware is created and distributed by NSO Group, an Israeli cyber-arms company. Source: Shutterstock.

‘Pegasus’ is a software developed by NSO Group, a company founded and registered in Israel. Pegasus is spyware software that is geared toward infiltrating mobile systems and smartphones in a way that has not been seen before. There was a list of fifty thousand numbers that was recently released including numbers of people whose smartphones had been spied on and infiltrated using Pegasus. According to its developers, Pegasus is only sold or licensed to governments and this licensing is for the sole purpose of supporting anti-terrorism efforts.

A Terrifying Tool by the NSO Group, An Israeli-Backed Defense Contractor

Essentially, according to NSO Group, Pegasus was developed to spy on terrorists and infiltrate or tap their communications. Pegasus is a powerful kit of spyware and in a way is a humongous threat to international security if used wrongly. One can only imagine what damage it could inflict if used on normal citizens by governments or if it falls into the hands of criminal organizations or the terrorists it was intended to spy on.

Pegasus: A Tool for Rogue Governments to Spy on Journalists and Dissenters

Pegasus has already inflicted damage as it was recently discovered that governments had used it to spy on members of the press and even other governments including top government leadership. A case in point is French President, Emmanuel Macron, whose unofficial phone had been spied on using Pegasus. Initial reports indicated that the spyware could have been deployed by the Moroccan government. Macron changed his phone and phone number and an investigation was started on whether his phone had actually been spied on using Pegasus. His phone number appeared on the list, one among tens of thousands, that were allegedly targeted by the spyware.

A 50,000-Person List of the Victims of Espionage via the Pegasus Spyware

Numerous journalists and dissidents from all over the world had their phone numbers listed in that list. Pegasus, it seems, was deployed to spy on them by their governments infringing on their privacy and potentially posing a danger to their personal security. You can imagine how detrimental and dangerous it would be if a dissident’s communications would be tapped on and their location tracked. According to reports, this actually happened all over the world after governments deployed Pegasus to spy on the press and dissidents.

Pegasus Works Like an Infiltration and Espionage Master Key

Pegasus works like a master key. It infiltrates and spies on smartphones without a trace. It is not like conventional spyware which needs user-instigated actions to install it on a phone. Conventionally, spyware is installed unknowingly such as by clicking on an image or file in an email and inadvertently installing the spyware. Instead, Pegasus can be installed by a malicious entity onto your phone through an application such as WhatsApp or through a WIFI connection.

Essentially, if Pegasus gets onto your phone, you would have to literally throw away the phone to get rid of it

The spyware leaves no traces and cannot be uninstalled. Normally, spyware will lag the phone and one can see numerous processes that are mostly running in the background. However, with Pegasus, there is no trace. It works like a ghost and will infiltrate everything. Pegasus has the ability to access your images, files, messages, calls, location, apps, and social media, and it can also be used to turn on your phone's location and track it. It has undeterred access to a device and one cannot uninstall it. Essentially, if Pegasus gets onto your phone, you would have to literally throw away the phone to get rid of it.

Pegasus Could be Apocalyptic if it Falls Into the Wrong Hands

Spyware such as Pegasus is next level and can be used wrongly by governments or even criminal or terrorist organizations to inflict harm and pose a danger to one’s and whole nations’ security. Journalists and dissidents are at the most risk as, using Pegasus, governments can track their location, and essentially see who they are talking to and what they are saying. Those most at risk are dissidents or members of the press living and working in countries whose governments have been known to clamp down on dissent and curtail the freedom of the press. A good example is India. Numerous journalists in India had their numbers as part of the 50,000-person list.

Pegasus as a Tool for Governments to Clamp Down on the Freedom of Speech and Dissenters

Most were even not surprised as India’s government has been seen to try and heavily clamp down on dissent and curtail the freedom of the press. By having access and licensing to spyware such as Pegasus, such governments can exercise a sort of impunity that has not been seen before. We previously thought that social media was the biggest threat to privacy but Pegasus introduces a whole new level of threat, not only to privacy but also to private security. The most horrifying thing is that when Pegasus gets onto your phone, it cannot be taken out or uninstalled.

Corporate Espionage: Pegasus Could Also be Used by Companies to Spy on Employees and Nab Whistleblowers

Analysts indicate that spyware such as Pegasus could potentially be used by multinationals and the corporate sector. Some companies may choose to use Pegasus to spy on their employees and avoid whistleblowing. This is especially likely in companies whose activities are marred by illegalities. These can be banks that engage in money laundering, businesses financed by crime, and those dealing with criminals and funneling the proceeds of crime.

As a result, such companies can try and protect their businesses by spying on their employees. Alternatively, companies could use Pegasus to spy on competitors. By installing the spyware on a competitor’s employee’s phone, an organization may spy on emails and communications that may include trade secrets, thus gaining a competitive edge. Such is the danger that Pegasus poses to the world as we know it today.

How to Protect Yourself from the Pegasus Spyware

The best way to steer clear of Pegasus is to avoid sharing sensitive information through your phone or via digital or electronic means of communication. I know that sounds impossible but is the only way to securely communicate. Most people do not realize that the calls you make and messages you send every day can be tapped and listened to. If you read the terms and conditions of your telecommunications service provider, you will realize that they are required by law to provide this data. This means that they can provide your call logs and recordings and your messages to the government. They may sometimes also share this data with malicious parties, including advertisers and data miners, for profit.

Corporate Breach of Privacy

You can imagine the level of a breach of privacy that would mean if a service provider chooses to use this information or wrongly share it for commercial means. The same goes for social media and communication apps. Apps such as WhatsApp could be used to install spyware such as Pegasus with their vulnerabilities taken advantage of to infiltrate your device. Facebook recently sued NSO Group for the exploitation of vulnerabilities in its systems and app to install Pegasus. These things are real and it is high time that we all learn to keep private and sensitive communication off our devices and electronic means of communication.

Spyware is Not New: Espionage Tools have Been in Use Even in the 1950s and 60s

You probably don’t realize it but even back in the 1950s and 60s, when people were using Morse code, communications could be tracked. This was how an Israeli spy, Eli Cohen, was tracked down and eventually executed by Syria. The fundamental architecture behind technology allows the ability to infiltrate and spy on communications. We may not like to admit it but that is the fact. As such, try and ensure that your sensitive communication stays off your devices as even deleting them does not necessarily mean they stop to exist.

"Pegasus Never Forgets"

You have probably heard the phrase that “the internet never forgets”. It is true. For instance, if you delete a Facebook message or a post, that post is not actually deleted from Facebook servers. Instead, the pointer to where it is located is what is deleted. The same goes for your devices. When you delete something off your phone or computer, it is actually not deleted. What is deleted is an entry to the index that points to where the particular files are located in storage. Whatever you have deleted only vanishes when you reuse the memory space it was occupying after ‘deleting’ it. That is why you can recover deleted files from your computer after deleting them and not adding new files to that particular folder in the storage media where it was located.

Dissidents and Journalists Most at Risk of Being Spied On with Pegasus

Dissidents and journalists are most at risk from the Pegasus spyware. Analysts say that anyone who is aware that their publications, work, or viewpoints could lead to them being targeted by rogue governments, should take precautions. Some of these precautions include changing their phone number every once in a while and more importantly, changing phones ever so often.

How Journalists Can Protect Themselves Against Pegasus Spyware: Avoid Sharing Sensitive Information via your Smartphones

However, the best way to avoid being spied on using Pegasus is to not share anything sensitive on your phone in the first place. If you need to make a sensitive phone call then a landline would give your more chances of security as compared to your smartphone. However, calls made through landlines can also be accessed by the phone company operating the landline. Therefore, finding ways to communicate sensitive information such as through one-on-one or person-to-person communication is the best way to stay safe. In an increasingly digital world, however, it seems that that is getting harder to do each day.

Numerous Lawsuits Filed Against the Creators of Pegasus, NSO Group

NSO Group is currently facing numerous lawsuits all over the world and one of the most damaging revelations is that Israel approves the licensing of Pegasus to other governments. Essentially, the development and licensing or selling of Pegasus is, in a sense, supported and approved by Israel. There were reports that the Israeli government vets the nations to whom the spyware will be licensed.

However, this does not offer any assurances to those who could be targeted using Pegasus. It is likely that Israel could approve the licensing of Pegasus to nations and governments that it is allied to, regardless of their track record (or lack thereof) of upholding human rights and the freedom of the press.

The Disaster that Could be Pegasus Falling into the Hands of the Taliban in Afghanistan

In the current humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan, one can only imagine what damage could be done if the Taliban had access to spyware such as Pegasus. They would use it to track those who collaborated with the United States and allied forces during the Afghan war and heavily clamp down on dissent. The freedom of the press would be heavily curtailed and given their track record, numerous journalists and dissidents would be tracked, tortured, and even killed.

This is unacceptable and there have been calls that Pegasus be scrapped altogether and its development halted. However, like with all tech companies, NSO Group is likely to lobby governments, especially the Israeli government, to keep Pegasus running and being developed to become an even bigger danger to the freedom of the press and dissidents all over the world.