One of the most discussed topics in July, in the international press, is the “Pegasus Project”. The first mention of Pegasus software made by Amnesty dates to August 2018 and refers to an attempt to install the software on the Amnesty International staff member device. In the article published, Amnesty associates the Pegasus with information from a 2015 data leak: : “The functionality of Pegasus, the attack and surveillance platform sold by NSO Group, is accurately described in a document named “Pegasus – Product Description” that was found in the 2015 leak of the competing Italian spyware vendor, Hacking Team.” The Pegasus project refers to a collaborative investigation into the NSO Group “cyber intelligence” firm. It all started when Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International were given access to a list of tens of thousands of phone numbers suspected of being hacked by Pegasus software.
In a world increasingly dominated by the digital spectrum, securing this environment has become indispensable. In this sense, what we call cybersecurity must become our constant companion, and worth to be mentioned that it occupies a priority place in most of the security doctrines of the last decade.
Given the situation imposed by the current technological evolutions, simultaneously with its positive aspects, the negative ones evolve, in the sense that new innovations can serve the interests and agendas of certain actors. In that regard, Pegasus spyware is a good example. The Pegasus software was developed by NSO Group, but on a personal level I consider the constant use of the “Israeli origin of the company” in many news titles it’s inappropriate. Sometimes in that kind of situation repeating the origin of the firm in the titles is less important, so that negative opinions can be triggered towards that nation.
According to the available information, the software was generally purchased by the governments of certain states, intelligence agencies or military institutions to monitor various mobile devices of certain actors, statesmen, journalists, influential people in general. So far, what differentiates Pegasus spyware from other offensive cybersecurity software its ability to provide direct access, with very few traces to customers to all information on that device, starting with messages, location, search history, all typed information as well as access to the camera and microphone of the device.
Together with Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, 17 media organizations from several countries, including The Guardian, Le Monde, Sueddeutsche Zeitung and The Washington Post, are collaborating to identify the links between the software and the governments involved. Agnès Callamard, Secretary General of Amnesty International, is quoted as saying Pegasus is a weapon used by repressive governments to silence journalists, activists, and dissidents. Currently, customers from countries such as the UAE, Mexico, Hungary, Saudi Arabia, or Morocco have been identified from the data leak.
Following the investigations carried out, they noticed the illicit surveillance of journalists, statesmen, academics, businessmen, activists since 2016 until now. Among the journalists are Cecilio Pineda, Sevinc Vaqifqizi in Azerbaijan or Roula Khalaf, the editor of the Financial Times. Also, Agnès Callamard said that “The surveillance industry must no longer be afforded a laissez-faire approach from governments with a vested interest in using this technology to commit human rights violations.”.
Devices can be infested through an innovative method known as zero-click exploits which identifies and exploits certain breaches that will later allow the installation of malware in some phones without any human interaction or click, for example facilitating the client access to the victim’s device only by browsing on certain unsecured websites.
A notorious case is in Hungary, following an investigation carried out by Direkt36, they identified numerous phones compromised by the Pegasus software, among them Szabolcs Panyi. However, in an interview published on 19.07.2021 Szabolcs Panyi reports that “In most of the cases, all of us were working on sensitive stories and all these stories were important to the government, national security, the reputation of the country, corruption, or even terrorism. Personally, I don’t think that Viktor Orbán had any”.
An interesting point of view related to Hungary is exposed by the Hungarian Spectrum, they find arguments in order to link the Hungarian government and the Israel government spotting on the fact that NSO Group needs the approval of the Israeli Ministry of Defense to sell the software to other governments. More than that a similar information is noted too by the Direkt34 on 19.07.2021, according to: A security officer formerly with one of Hungary’s intelligence services told Direkt36 that, according to his knowledge, Hungarian services started using Pegasus in 2018 as a direct result of ties between Israel and Hungary becoming closer.
In the same disapproving note, according to The Guardian, the opposition calls on the Orban government to resign because of the Pegasus scandal. According to Hungarian law, in special cases where the security of the state is threatened, surveillance can be used without court decision.
We’ve asked Eva Balogh, from Hungarian Spectrum, for an opinion regarding the potential electoral fallout for Fidesz from the Pegasus scandal and how and if the Budapest-Tel Aviv relationship changes with a new political leadership in Israel: ” For your first question, I consider the Pegasus affair a big headache for Orbán and it certainly does help in as far as the elections are concerned. At the moment the government says nothing. They don’t deny it but at the same time, don’t admit it either. They act as if nothing has happened. However, Fidesz’s refusal to attend the meeting of the parliamentary committee to discuss the matter is pretty much a confession of guilt. For how long can they play dumb I have no idea. The opposition is working pretty hard to keep the topic floating,” Mrs. Balogh said.
She also said regarding the Hungarian-Israeli relationship in the future that “As for Israeli-Hungarian relations, I’m sure that it will not be as cozy as before but I don’t expect a sharp break. However, Yair Lapid, alternate prime minister, comes from a Hungarian Jewish family and I”m sure that he is no friend of Orbán.”
To continue, the list published by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) includes people such as: Rahul Gandhi, prominent opposition figure to Narendra Modi’s government in India, French President Emmanuel Macron, Prime Minister of Pakistan Imran Khan, Pavel Durov co-founder of the encrypted messaging app Telegram or Madwai Al Rasheed, visiting professor at LSE and the list goes on.
We can only wonder Quo vadis freedom of the press? With such tools, repressive governments around the world can control the press and the people, disrupt free speech, and blatantly violate democratic principles. To what extent does the freedom of some actors to use certain practices or tools, in order to ensure the security of the state, for example, not violate the freedom of expression of others? Where is our future society heading in the absence of an increasingly necessary cybersecurity education among the population?