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Project Pegasus: What We Know About the Large-Scale Cyber ​​Surveillance Case

5 min read

Posted on Jul 19, 2021 4:19 PMUpdated Jul 19, 2021, 5:47 PM

It’s a list of tens of thousands of numbers that looks like an earthquake. On Sunday, the Forbidden Stories organization – which coordinated 17 editorial staffs associated with Project Pegasus – and in partnership with Amnesty International, revealed a massive spy case carried out using Pegasus, a cybersurveillance software from the Israeli company NSO.

The list corresponding to the numbers that may possibly be “placed under surveillance” by at least ten countries since 2016 contains the names of more than 50,000 people. But not all of them have been victims of infiltration or attempted infiltration of their phones.

NSO denounced a “misleading interpretation of the information disclosed”, questioning the revelations made by the consortium. The company, however, assured that it would continue to investigate accusations of misuse of personal data.

A very large-scale espionage

These revelations come at the end of a six-month investigation. Forbidden Stories, a journalistic investigation platform created in 2017, Amnesty International and a consortium of 17 editorial staff have released a list of more than 50,000 phone numbers of people who have been placed under surveillance. Technical analyzes revealed that 85% of them had been victims of an infection or attempted infection. “This rate is remarkably high given that state-of-the-art spyware is supposed to be undetectable on phones,” Forbidden Stories said in a statement.

The case is particularly shocking by its magnitude. Those affected are human rights activists, trade unionists and journalists, as well as lawyers, academics, heads of state and diplomats of around 50 nationalities. Several thousand telephone numbers of Europeans would be affected.

Hungary, European country that used spyware

Thanks to the spyware of the Israeli company NSO, it was thus possible to access instant messengers, e-mails and calls, as well as to activate remotely the microphone of the phones tapped, without any external sign. does not allow to realize it.

At least ten countries among the 40 or so customers of NSO are believed to be involved in the affair. Mexico, the United Arab Emirates and Morocco together have a total of more than 35,000 numbers (more than 15,000 for Mexico, more than 10,000 for the Emirates and Morocco). In Europe, Hungary is said to have used it in the context of the war on the media led by President Viktor Orbán.

Monitoring of critical voices

According to the “Guardian”, it is mainly lawyers, political dissidents and activists who have been targeted. Saudi women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was allegedly added to the list by the United Arab Emirates in 2018 a few weeks before her arrest and extradition to Saudi Arabia. Released in February after three years in prison, she remains banned from communicating with journalists and the technical analysis of her phone could not be carried out. The activist, however, had already announced an attempt to hack her mailbox. In Mexico, a plethora of activists, lawyers and human rights defenders appear in the Pegasus database, such as the President of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, Eduardo Ferrer Mac-Gregor Poisot.

Cyber ​​surveillance attempts have not been confined to NSO client countries. London lawyer Rodney Dixon was reportedly added to the 2019 list and was the victim of several infection attempts, which were unsuccessful. Known for many high-profile human rights cases, he notably defended the fiancée of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Hatice Cengiz, also on file. The French Joseph Breham, lawyer for the NGO Acted, is also concerned. “There is no possible justification for a foreign country to wiretap a French lawyer,” he told the “Guardian”.

A total of 180 journalists from around ten newspapers are on the list. Journalists investigating the governments in place would be among the main concerned, such as the Indian Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, founder of the news site “The Wire”. The intrusion into his phone was allegedly made during his investigation into the disinformation campaigns carried out by the government of Narendra Modi on Facebook within the Hindu community. International media, including some of the consortium, have been the subject of attempted surveillance. The numbers of journalists of “The Economist”, Reuters, France 24 or even the “Financial Times” – some having investigated with Forbidden Stories – have been identified.

More than 1,000 French people concerned

France is not spared by this affair. Of the tens of thousands of issues selected by Morocco, a thousand belong to French people. Journalists Edwy Plenel and Lénaïg Bredoux, from Médiapart, and Dominique Simmonot, ex-journalist of “Canard Enchaîné” and now Controller General of places of deprivation of liberty, are among the thirty journalists and press bosses listed.

Mediapart has also announced that it has filed a complaint against X with the public prosecutor of Paris following these revelations. “Beyond the legal consequences, it goes without saying that this attack on fundamental freedoms, carried out by a foreign power against an independent newspaper, requires a firm reaction from the French authorities which goes beyond a conviction of principle. We are waiting for it, ”explained the investigative media.

The director of TSF Jazz, Bruno Delport, also president of the NGO Solidarité Sida, was reportedly targeted as a result of prevention campaigns carried out among sex workers in Morocco. Other journalists from “Monde”, France 24, “Figaro” and AFP were also victims of these cybersurveillance attempts from Morocco. For the moment, no French political figure would be concerned.

Denial of accusations by Hungary and Morocco

For Morocco, which reacted officially in a statement, these are “false allegations devoid of any foundation. “The government has never acquired computer software to infiltrate communication devices, just as the Moroccan authorities have never resorted to this kind of act,” the statement continued, which “challenges” the collective of “Provide realistic and scientific evidence which can be the subject of an independent expert opinion and second opinion on the veracity of these allegations”.

In Hungary, Viktor Orban’s government reacted with a statement by his foreign minister at a press conference. “The director general (of the secret services) informed me that no cooperation has been established with the Israeli intelligence services,” said Peter Szijjarto.

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