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Wed Jan 25, 2023, 01:28 PM

Tools of the surveillance state: A review of "Pegasus" by Laurent Richard and Sandrene Rigaud

From the Guardian: Spyware Hiding in Plain Sight

The arrival of the mobile phone, and then the smartphone, has brought that power of invisible oversight to governments willing to pay the comparatively small cost – some millions of pounds – of licensing invasive software that will silently monitor a phone. The most popular one (that we know about) is called Pegasus, created by an Israeli company called NSO.

Pegasus originally arrived in the form of a text message from an unfamiliar number. If the recipient clicked on it, the phone would be infected. Later versions didn’t even need that interaction: the text message alone could be the agent of infection. The phone then became a portal for the government controllers: they could download any content, surreptitiously turn on the camera or microphone, listen to any call. The infection persisted until the phone was restarted – at which point the controllers would notice, and send another infecting message.

The fundamental problem with Pegasus is that of any superpower: it’s too easy, and tempting, to misuse. NSO, and especially its chief executive, have publicly insisted that sales are conditional on the software being used only to target criminals. (And never American phone numbers; NSO knows not to anger the biggest beast.) But plenty of authoritarian states, and those wobbling on the edge, see telling the truth as a criminal act – and thus target journalists and lawyers too.

NSO implies that it can’t know which individuals have been targeted. The opening of Pegasus appears to contradict that: two journalists, Laurent Richard and Sandrine Rigaud of the French investigative journalism outlet Forbidden Stories, receive a list of 50,000 phone numbers from all over the world with a mysterious series of dates and times attached. As they discover, the numbers, dates and times accord with mobile phones in multiple countries, and the time of attempted or successful infection. (The leak’s timing overlaps intriguingly with a case heard in London in 2021, during which it emerged that Pegasus was used to spy on a British lawyer, Baroness Shackleton, and her client, Princess Haya, who was seeking a divorce from Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai.)

We seem to be endlessly willing to barter our freedom for greater convenience, alas...


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