NationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 24

Pegasus spying and hybrid warfare

It is shocking that many governments have used Israel-made malware, Pegasus, to spy on the phones of politicians, journalists, activists, government officials and corporate executives all over the world.

The Paris-based journalism non-profit Forbidden Stories, Amnesty International, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Le Monde, and over a dozen other news outlets collaborated to break the mega scandal. According to some hair-raising revelations, the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group has sold spyware to around 10 countries for conducting cyber-surveillance.

The Mexican defence ministry acquired the software in 2011. It was used against the current president of Mexico, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, and 50 of his family members and associates. Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto was killed in 2017 with the help of this software. Cecilio Pineda Birto was writing against the corrupt government, politicians and police.

However, according to some researchers, an early version of the hacking software was first detected in 2016 when an Arab country used it to spy on a dissident. The software can infiltrate Androids and iPhones. It enables the operator to record calls, retrieve messages, photos and emails without the knowledge of the phone user. “Pegasus is probably one of the most capable remote access tools,” said Alan Woodward, cybersecurity professor at the University of Surrey in the UK. “Think of it as if you’ve put your phone in someone else’s hands.” It can be used to read the target’s messages and emails, look through the photos they’ve taken, eavesdrop on their calls, track their location and even film them through their camera. Pegasus’ developers have become “better and better at hiding” all traces of the software, making it difficult to confirm whether a particular phone has been bugged or not, Woodward said.

According to the report, the phone numbers in the leak span 45 countries, containing the phone numbers of 50,000 individuals. Traces of the Pegasus malware have also been found in some devices. India has used the Pegasus spyware to hack phones of Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan, Indian National Congress leader Rahul Gandhi and many other prominent persons, including journalists, politicians, diplomats, etc. French President Emmanuel Macron’s phone has also been hacked.

The revelations manifest that the software can be used against dissidents and critics by a government and spy agency. Authoritarian regimes, like Modi’s government, etc. have used the Pegasus spyware to commit human rights violations by crushing their opponents and critics. It is alleged that the NSO technology was used to assassinate Jamal Khashoggi. His killers got help from the Pegasus to track his movements and monitor his communications. They also used it to monitor his relatives and friends’ activities.

It is also said that Israel is using spyware against Palestinians. The Modi government has used the software to suppress dissent, opposition political leaders, journalists, constitutional functionaries, bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, scientists, business people and diplomats. The Indian opposition parties have condemned it and called for an investigation into the matter. “This is clearly treason and total abdication of national security by the Modi government, more so when the foreign company could possibly have access to this data,” said the Congress party, adding, “This is an unforgivable sacrilege and negation of the constitutional oath by the home minister and the prime minister.”

Sushant Singh, a senior fellow with the Centre for Policy Research in India, is one of the Indian journalists to have been targeted by the Modi regime through Pegasus. He wrote: “After I agreed to cooperate with the investigation, my device was checked by Amnesty International in early July. They found that my cell-phone had been infiltrated by Pegasus, most probably in July 2018.”

Digital espionage has now become a very important part of modern hybrid wars. It is now a reality, not a conspiracy theory. Scientific progress and new inventions in communication have not only changed societies of the world but also brought about revolutionary changes in the old game of international spying. In cyber warfare, Israel, Russia and China have emerged as the most powerful countries in the world. Even America accused Russia of hacking its election. America has also accused China of hacking its businesses. Israel has established itself as a great power in the cyberwar by developing Pegasus, Candiru, Verint, Quadream and Cellebrite software for surveillance. Conventional wars would be over in the coming years. New wars will be fought in the digital realm. Hostile countries can use the Pegasus spyware to spy on rivals in a new era of cyberespionage. India has already used it against Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan, which is very dangerous.

The EU DisinfoLab has already unmasked India’s hybrid war against Pakistan in its report named “Indian Chronicles”. Other reports say that India has launched a media campaign worth Rs7 billion against Pakistan. It has created about 350K+ “Bot” profiles on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter under Pakistani names, mostly with Baloch and Pashtun surnames. They are also sharing thousands of fake photos/videos of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and ex-FATA on a daily basis, systematically manipulating Pakistan’s social media with clever misinformation.

After the report, Pakistan urged the UN to probe India’s phone hacking. “We have noted with serious concern recent international media reports exposing Indian government’s organised spying operations against its own citizens, foreigners as well as Prime Minister Imran Khan, using an Israeli origin spyware,” the Foreign Office said. “We condemn in the strongest possible terms India’s state-sponsored, continuing and widespread surveillance and spying operations in a clear breach of global norms of responsible state behaviour,” Foreign Office Spokesperson Zahid Hafiz Chaudhri said. “In view of the gravity of the reports, we call on relevant UN bodies to thoroughly investigate the matter, bring the facts to light, and hold the Indian perpetrators to account,” Chaudhri added in a statement.

The PTI government should take every possible step to highlight the issue in the world. The state should also enhance its cybersecurity. App developers and phone manufacturers should also improve protection and security. The UN must form rules to regulate the use of surveillance technology and take stern action against the abuse of the technology. The media should also highlight the issue to protect the fundamental rights of people by exposing cyberespionage and digital surveillance.