Allegations have surfaced that the BJP party in India is using spy software against journalists and members of the opposition. Amnesty International’s Security Lab published the discovery on December 28 that “Pegasus spyware was used by an unknown government agency to compromise the mobile phone of the founding editor of the Indian news outlet The Wire.”
Their report also states that “the earliest Pegasus attacks identified by Amnesty International in India occurred in early July 2017.”
Pegasus spy software gained attention a few years ago after its use by governments around the world looking to tap into the mobile phones of whistleblowers and outspoken personalities.
The Israeli company who owns Pegasus, NSO, told the Washington Post, “While NSO cannot comment on specific customers, we stress again that all of them are vetted law enforcement and intelligence agencies that license our technologies for the sole purpose of fighting terror and major crime. The company’s policies and contracts provide mechanisms to avoid [the] targeting of journalists, lawyers and human rights defenders or political dissidents that are not involved in terror or serious crimes.”
The software is “zero-click,” meaning it “enables spyware to be installed on a device without requiring any user action from the target, such as clicking on a link,” according to the Security Lab report.
Donncha Ó Cearbhaill, the head of the lab says, “Amnesty International is calling on all countries, including India, to ban the use and export of highly invasive spyware, which cannot be independently audited or limited in its functionality.”
The Lab found Pegasus to be used in Serbia and similar software has been used in other countries in Europe.
In their report on Europe, the Security Lab found that another Israeli spyware program, Predator, “can infiltrate a device when the user simply clicks on a malicious link, but it can also be delivered through tactical attacks, which can silently infect nearby devices.” Despite this, the founding company, Intellexa said it is regulated by the EU.
“This spyware, and its rebranded variants, can access unchecked amounts of data on devices. It cannot, at present, be independently audited or limited in its functionality to only those functions that are necessary and proportionate to a specific use and target,” says the report.
WhatsApp (Meta) and Apple are both suing the makers of Pegasus, separately, for security breaches to their servers. Apple has also set up an alert system to warn users when their phone data has been breached.
Regarding the recent hack exposed in India, the Washington post article says, “Senior Modi administration officials called Apple’s India representatives to demand that the company help soften the political impact of the warnings.”
The digital news outlet, Cnet, has more to say about how Pegasus is used.
“The spyware was found on the phones of at least nine [US] State Department officials who were either based in Uganda or involved in matters associated with the African country, Reuters and The New York Times reported in December .
“NSO has been implicated by previous reports and lawsuits in other hacks, including a reported hack of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos in 2018. A Saudi dissident sued the company in 2018 for its alleged role in hacking a device belonging to journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who had been murdered inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey that year.”
Cnet also notes that Pegasus “can be installed remotely without a surveillance target ever having to open a document or website link… It can also secretly turn on a phone’s microphone and cameras to create new recordings, The Washington Post said.”
Axios reported in November of 2023 that “NSO is also undertaking an active lobbying campaign in the United States to get its technology removed from a new list banning federal agencies from using its spyware, as well as a U.S. trade blacklist.”
“Several Israeli agencies are likely using Pegasus,” reported Axios. Its source at NSO said, “I think it’s clear to everyone that now is the time for greater intelligence collaboration between allies, like the U.S. and Israel, to keep people safe from terrorists like Hamas.”