What is the most problematic tech company in the world? Facebook? Google? Palantir? Nope. It is a small, privately held Israeli company called NSO that most people have never heard of. On its Web site, it describes itself as “a world leader in precision cyberintelligence solutions.” Its software, sold only to “licensed government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies,” naturally, helps them to “lawfully address the most dangerous issues in today’s world. NSO’s technology has helped prevent terrorism, break up criminal operations, find missing people and assist search-and-rescue teams.”
So what is this magical stuff? It is called Pegasus and it is ultra-sophisticated spyware that covertly penetrates and compromises smartphones. It is particularly good with Apple phones, which is significant because these devices are generally more secure than Android ones. This is positively infuriating to Apple, which views protecting its users’ privacy as one of its unique selling points.
How does Pegasus work? Pay attention, iPhone users, journalists and heads of government: Your cherished and trusted device will emit no beep or other sound when it is being hijacked. However, the intruder has gained entry and from then on everything on your phone becomes instantly accessible to whoever is running the spyware. Your camera can be secretly activated to take photographs, for example, and your microphone switched on at the whim of a distant watcher or listener. Everything you type on iMessage or WhatsApp will be read and logged. And you will have no idea that this is happening. You have been “Pegasused,” as it were. And the perpetrator might well be a government, which is interesting if you happen to be a president like Emmanuel Macron or a prime minister like Imran Khan, but potentially fatal if you happen to be a journalist like Jamal Khashoggi.
Those of us who follow these things have known about NSO for quite a while, mainly thanks to the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which is the nearest thing civil society has to the National Security Agency. Its researchers have done sterling work tracing the ways in which journalists’ phones have been Pegasused by authoritarian regimes.
In December last year, for example, the Lab published the report of an investigation that showed how Pegasus spyware had been used to hack into 36 personal phones belonging to journalists, producers, anchors and executives at al-Jazeera and a phone of a London-based journalist at Al Araby TV. The phones were compromised using an invisible zero-click exploit in iMessage. The hacking was done by four Pegasus clients, two of which appeared to be Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
There is a good deal more where that came from. NSO’s invariable corporate response is that contractual confidentiality prevents it from identifying its clients and that the company does not itself operate the spyware — it just sells it to sovereign governments and is therefore not responsible for what they do with it.
If that reminds you of another industry that sells powerful and potentially dangerous products, then join the club. NSO is basically the same as an arms manufacturer, because its software is regarded by its home government as a weapon and the company needs an export license before it can sell to anyone. From which we might infer that regimes that get their paws on Pegasus are ones of which the government of Israel covertly or tacitly approves.
NSO is back in the news because Amnesty International, in collaboration with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and 16 media organizations, including the Guardian, has launched The Pegasus project, aimed at uncovering who might have fallen victim to the spyware and to tell their stories.
The project was triggered when a consortium of journalists gained access to a leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers allegedly entered into a system used for targeting by Pegasus. The list makes for interesting reading, not least because it identifies the governments that are likely to be assiduous users of Pegasus. They include Mexico, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Hungary, India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and — interestingly — Rwanda.
Until now, NSO’s activities seemed unstoppable: In a Westphalian world of sovereign states that can do what they like, if your home government gives you a license to export, then you are in business. However, recently, three things have changed.
First, and most importantly, there are new administrations at the helm in Israel and the US. If US President Joe Biden decided that NSO’s activities have suddenly become unacceptable, then a serious phone call to the Israeli prime minister might have an effect. Second, Apple is mightily pissed off about having its iPhones compromised and it has more technical clout than even NSO hackers. And finally, the Amnesty project has suddenly brought NSO, blinking, out of the shadows and into the light.
Some good might come of this.
John Naughton is professor of the public understanding of technology at the Open University.
Local media reported earlier this month that the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) criticized President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) for referring to China as a “neighboring country,” saying that this is no different from a “two-state” model and that it amounts to changing the cross-strait “status quo.” I find it quite impossible to understand why civilized Taiwan continues to tolerate the existence of such a deceitful group that believes its own lies. The relationship between Taiwan and China is the relationship between two countries, and neither has any jurisdiction over the other — this is the undeniable “status quo.” Those who believe in the
On Thursday, China applied to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) — a regional economic organization whose 11 member countries have a combined GDP of US$11 trillion. That is less than China’s 2019 GDP of US$14.34 trillion, so why is China so eager to join? China says there are two main reasons: To consolidate its foreign trade and foreign investment base, and to fast-track economic and trade relations between China and member countries of the CPTPP free-trade area. China’s bilateral trade with these countries grew from US$78 billion in 2003 to US$685.1 billion last year, mostly because of China’s 2005
US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) talked on the telephone on Thursday last week, the first time the two leaders have done so since Biden assumed the presidency. While each side sought to put their own gloss on the content of the conversation, some common ground did emerge. Biden reportedly said that both sides have a joint responsibility to ensure that competition between the US and China does not spiral into conflict and that there is no reason that the two nations are destined to fall into this trap. The day after the phone call, the Financial Times reported
WASHINGTON [Special Commentary]: It is just a teensy-weensy change, a change of one little syllable. It is barely noticeable unless you’re watching really carefully: The Tai-“pei” Representative Office in Washington, D.C. (TECRO) could soon change its name — just ever so very slightly — to Tai-“wan” Representative Office. The office’s “TECRO” initials would remain the same. It will be only a symbolic change. London’s Financial Times reported last week that such a change may soon be coming. The timing was a bit awkward, though. The FT’s report came out on the very same day that Taiwan Foreign Minister Joseph Wu (吳釗燮)