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We’re Not Prepared To Live In This Surveillance Society

Democratic governments must do better to protect citizens from sophisticated spyware. We’re Not Prepared To Live In This Surveillance Society

Last week, an investigation by Amnesty International and several media outlets alleged that 37 heads of state, reporters, human rights activists and businessmen had been hacked with spyware developed by the Israeli surveillance company NSO Group.

The names came from a leaked list of 50,000 mobile phone numbers of individuals regarded “as people of interest” by NSO’s government clients. Around 600 of them are politicians or heads of state, ranging from French President President Emmanuel Macron to the King of Morocco.

NSO denies the charges. But the revelations as well as other evidence suggest that gross violations of privacy are becoming a norm rather than an exception. Traditional state agencies are struggling to keep pace.

The reason is simple: Most laws on privacy were passed in the age of postal services, landlines and physical newspapers. Today people conduct much of their lives online. They allow their mobile phones to record, wittingly or not, evidence of their deepest secrets. And the pandemic has moved more confidential business onto digital platforms that record their chats.

That makes our devices juicy targets for authoritarian states and bad actors, as well as for the private enterprise spies who have the tools to help them.

Yes, there are upsides to the prevalence of modern surveillance. More than 400 people who stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6, for instance, were arrested and charged because they left their digital “fingerprints” at the scene.

Their locations were confirmed by GPS satellites, WiFi signals, videos and metadata — all collected from internet giants. It was another Israeli security company, Cellebrite, that unlocked and copied the contents of their mobile devices. One of the Capitol insurgents was asked on Facebook whether he’d been arrested: “No not yet anyway, lol.” Shortly after he sent that message, he was.

But the sophistication and ubiquity of surveillance techniques used by democratic policing agencies should raise questions about how far we’re willing to let governments listen in to our private lives.

Debate erupted when former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden revealed the vast scale of the U.S. government’s data collection program in 2013. Snowden’s revelations, however, did not show the government targeting individual reporters or human rights activists. The Amnesty International report from last week alleges that authoritarian governments such as Saudi Arabia used NSO’s Pegasus spyware on dissidents and journalists.

Pegasus was originally designed to help western governments target terrorists and major criminal networks. And NSO protests that it only sells spyware to governments approved by Israel. It also claims that its technology has saved many lives.

But the balance of benefits and harms has to come under greater scrutiny. Amnesty claims that Pegasus has been used to target opponents of Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist government and dissidents to Viktor Orban’s Hungarian populists, among others.

NSO is looking less like an innovative company doing necessary work and more like one finding excuses for unacceptable snooping.

Already embroiled in a lawsuit with WhatsApp over allegations that it sent malware to more than 1,000 customers via its messaging app, Pegasus has also been mentioned in connection with the data snatch revealing Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos’s extramarital affair. If Bezos isn’t safe from the snoopers, then who is?

And yet governments have been slow about figuring out how to control hacking software. Macron has shown seriousness by convening a rapid cyber-security meeting after the recent Pegasus allegations. And Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that export of NSO spyware should be restrained to democratic countries where there is judicial oversight.

Updated: 8-17-2021

Supreme Court Agrees To Hear Pleas To Probe India’s Use Of Pegasus Spyware

India’s Supreme Court agreed to hear petitions seeking an independent probe into the Narendra Modi administration’s alleged use of the Israel-based company NSO Group Ltd.’s Pegasus spyware to surveil journalists, politicians, tycoons and judges.

A panel of judges headed by Chief Justice N.V. Ramana issued notice to the federal government and sought its stand in the case. “We’ll see whether we will constitute a committee or what to do,” Ramana said. The court will hear the case again after 10 days.

The decision to hear the case in detail is a setback for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party before key state elections next year. The federal Parliamentary Affairs Minister Pralhad Joshi has called the matter a “non-issue,” rejecting calls for a discussion in parliament. Opposition parties have called the use of military grade spyware on citizens as treason.

Pegasus was originally designed to help western governments target terrorists and major criminal networks. But it has come under greater scrutiny after an investigation by Amnesty International and several media outlets alleged last month that 37 heads of state, reporters, human rights activists and businessmen had been hacked with the spyware.

During the initial hearing of the case, the federal government denied conducting illegal surveillance but did not say whether it used Pegasus or not. Details on use of military equipment software cannot be disclosed publicly for national security reasons, India’s Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said, representing the government.

Journalists, politicians, lawyers and the Editors Guild of India have petitioned the Supreme Court, seeking information from the government on whether it purchased the spyware and authorized its use on citizens.

Pegasus, sold to select governments and law enforcement agencies, can hack into mobile phones through a link and secretly record emails, calls and text messages. In some cases, it can activate itself without the victim clicking on the link, according to The Washington Post, one of the news organizations involved in the investigation.

 

 

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