Israel’s Pegasus: Is your phone a
‘24-hour surveillance device’?
Pegasus scandal is the latest episode in the
dystopian science fiction thriller that we are
By Belen Fernandez
September 17, 2021 -- "Information
Clearing House -
The hackings were revealed in a new report
from Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which
has studied Pegasus extensively along with related
nefarious modern phenomena.
As the Guardian notes, Pegasus is “perhaps the
most powerful piece of spyware ever developed” and
can turn a mobile phone into a “24-hour surveillance
device” – harvesting messages, passwords, photos,
internet searches, and other data and seizing
control of the camera and microphone.
This can all be done via “zero-click” technology,
meaning that one does not have to click on a
compromised link or do anything else for one’s phone
to become infected.
As if Bahraini human rights campaigners didn’t
already have enough on their plates in a
torture-happy kingdom before, you know, the full
obliteration of the right to privacy.
And yet the Citizen Lab report is merely the
latest episode in the dystopian science fiction
thriller that we are presently inhabiting on earth.
In July, the Pegasus Project – a consortium of 17
media outlets working with Amnesty International and
the Paris-based NGO Forbidden Stories – revealed a
leaked list of more than 50,000 smartphone numbers
from across the world. The majority of the numbers
were concentrated in countries known to have been
clients of NSO, suggesting that the list was a
compilation of potential surveillance targets.
The Washington Post, one of the affiliated
outlets, explained that 37 of the listed phones had
thus far been confirmed as targets of attempted or
successful hacking by Pegasus spyware. Among the
phones’ owners were journalists, activists, and “the
two women closest to Saudi columnist” Jamal
Khashoggi, who was murdered by agents of the Saudi
state on October 2, 2018.
Exactly one day before the murder, Citizen Lab
had warned with “high confidence” that the phone of
Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi critic in Canada, had been
infected by Pegasus. Abdulaziz, it turned out, was a
close friend and frequent correspondent of Khashoggi.
And while NSO representatives vociferously deny
complicity in any sort of wrongdoing ever, the list
of coincidences goes on.
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More than 15,000 of the 50,000 phone numbers, for
example, were in Mexico – which holds the
distinction of having been NSO’s first international
client-slash-guinea pig in 2011. Reflecting on the
fate of Mexican freelance reporter Cecilio Pineda,
who was shot to death in a hammock after his number
appeared twice on the infamous list, the Washington
Post threw in the disclaimer: “It is unclear what
role, if any, Pegasus’s ability to geolocate its
targets in real time contributed to his murder”.
According to Reuters, Mexican government agencies
signed contracts worth upwards of $160m with NSO
Group between 2011 and 2018, primarily during the
reign of right-wing President Enrique Peña Nieto.
Thanks to the investment, Pegasus operators were
able to target, inter alia, investigators looking
into the forcible disappearance of 43 students in
the state of Guerrero by Mexican security forces in
2014. Also targeted were the wife, children, and
cardiologist of left-wing politician Andrés Manuel
López Obrador, who has since succeeded Peña Nieto.
Back over in Bahrain, Citizen Lab has verified
that five out of the nine recently hacked numbers
appear on the Pegasus Project list. Although Bahrain
and Israel only formally normalised relations last
year, a bilateral affinity predated the official
declaration of love, and the Bahraini government is
believed to have added Pegasus spyware to its
repressive arsenal in 2017.
To be sure, it is not difficult to see why the
“most powerful piece of spyware ever developed”
might come in handy in a place known for repressing,
detaining, torturing, and killing protesters – not
to mention revoking the citizenship of Bahraini
nationals who are too committed to things like human
rights, activism, journalism, and other threatening
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which also
celebrated normalisation with Israel last year, has
long been in bed with Israeli spying technology – as
evidenced by a mass civil surveillance system called
Falcon Eye installed in Abu Dhabi by an
A 2015 Middle East Eye article quoted a source
close to Falcon Eye on its functions: “Every person
is monitored from the moment they leave their
doorstep to the moment they return to it. Their
work, social and behavioural patterns are recorded,
analysed and archived”.
As if that were not Big Brother enough, the phone
of the author of that article went on to end up –
where else? – on the Pegasus Project list.
In 2016, meanwhile, analysts documented a Pegasus
hacking attempt against decorated Emirati human
rights defender Ahmed Mansoor, who is currently
imprisoned for such heinous crimes as insulting the
“status and prestige of the UAE”. What, after all,
could possibly be criticised in a prestigious
country where civil liberties have been wiped out
and replaced with shopping malls and artificial
islands – and where persons suspected of opposition
to the arrangement are eligible for jail time,
torture, and disappearance?
So much for NSO’s “Human Rights Policy”, which
appears on the firm’s website and is said to entail
“contractual obligations requiring NSO’s customers
to limit the use of the company’s products to the
prevention and investigation of serious crimes,
including terrorism, and to ensure that the products
will not be used to violate human rights”.
Ostensibly as an additional safeguard, the
Israeli defence ministry must approve all sales of
NSO spyware to clients across the globe.
Of course, given that Israel’s own definition of
counterterrorism involves, like, bombing Palestinian
civilians, it is not difficult to see how human
rights might fall by the wayside.
Indeed, Israel’s unique position as an apartheid
state and violent occupying power has given it a
significant advantage in the export of traditional
armaments as well as cybersecurity products and
other repressive expertise, all battle-tested on
real live Palestinians.
As of 2016, Israel already possessed the most
surveillance companies per capita anywhere on the
planet. And as the case of NSO and Pegasus
illustrates, the private surveillance industry is
able to soar to ever greater heights courtesy of an
abundance of ex-Israeli military cyberspies keen to
get in on the action in a lucrative and largely
In 2019, incidentally, Facebook-owned WhatsApp
filed a lawsuit against NSO over hacking accusations
– a legal fight that is ongoing and has since been
joined by Microsoft and other tech giants. Never
mind that several of these outfits have themselves
been implicated in the censorship of Palestinian
journalists and activists – or that Microsoft once
invested in an Israeli facial recognition firm that
was secretly surveilling West Bank Palestinians.
For similarly solid ethics, one need look no
further than the August 4 Associated Press article
specifying that the Oregon state employee pension
fund was “one of the largest investors, if not the
largest” investor in the private equity firm with
majority ownership of NSO Group.
In its new report on Bahrain, Citizen Lab notes
that “under the pretext of addressing COVID-19, the
Bahraini government has imposed further restrictions
on freedom of expression”. It is no doubt less than
comforting, then, that Naftali Bennett – the
ultra-right-wing former Israeli defence minister who
in 2020 proposed enlisting NSO to fight the
coronavirus – is now the prime minister of Israel.
And as Israel’s mission to normalise the
annihilation of Palestinian rights proceeds
alongside the normalisation of mass spying and the
effective criminalisation of freedom of thought, we
must not lose sight of the fact that none of this is
really normal at all.
Belen Fernandez is the author of Checkpoint
Zipolite: Quarantine in a Small Place (OR Books,
2021), Exile: Rejecting America and Finding the
World (OR Books, 2019), Martyrs Never Die: Travels
through South Lebanon (Warscapes, 2016), and The
Imperial Messenger: Thomas Friedman at Work (Verso,
2011). She is a contributing editor at Jacobin
Magazine, and has written for the New York Times,
the London Review of Books blog, Current Affairs,
and Middle East Eye, among numerous other
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