Tel Aviv/Berlin (dpa) – With the surveillance software Pegasus from the Israeli company NSO, opposition and reporters have been spied even more, according to media reports.
An international consortium of journalists reported in a series of articles that traces of successful or attempted attacks were discovered on 37 smartphones by journalists, human rights activists, their relatives and business people.
Pegasus exploits vulnerabilities in smartphone software to gain extensive access to data. NSO denied the allegations and denied individual details from the reports. Pegasus is “sold exclusively to law enforcement and secret services of controlled governments for the sole purpose of saving lives by preventing crime and terrorism,” the company stressed, as it has done after similar allegations.
The articles nevertheless sparked calls for clarification and tighter controls in the surveillance software business. The German Association of Journalists asked the secret services and security authorities to provide information on whether Pegasus had also been used against German journalists. The German journalists’ union called for restrictions on the export of surveillance technology.
The Federal Ministry of the Interior assured that no one would be checked for doing journalistic work. At the same time, there is no information about operational measures and therefore also not about the general use of Pegasus. The federal government has taken note of the reports, she said of the chancellery. Press freedom is a great asset, a government spokeswoman emphasized.
The starting point for the publications was a dataset with more than 50,000 telephone numbers, which the journalist consortium evaluated together with the organizations Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International. The numbers are reported to have been selected by NSO customers as potential spy targets. The NSO denied this in a response to the Washington Post, if only because the list was too long for it.
The “Süddeutsche Zeitung”, NDR, WDR and “Zeit” are also involved in the journalists’ consortium. According to their presentation, the “Pegasus Project” investigation suggests that hundreds of journalists, human rights activists, opposition activists and politicians were selected to track them with the spy software. The list includes the numbers of more than 180 journalists from different countries. Numbers of German journalists are not included. How the list ended up with Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, who she then shared with the media, remained open in the coverage.
French government spokesman Gabriel Attal spoke of an “extremely shocking situation” and announced investigations. “We are very attached to freedom of the press,” he told Franceinfo. According to the daily newspaper «Le Monde», the list contained about 30 journalists and heads of media companies in France. The online platform “Mediapart” wrote that mobile phones belonging to two of their journalists were attacked with Pegasus from 2019 to 2020. The accusation was that Moroccan secret services were behind it.
NSO has already been accused of allowing authoritarian governments to spy on journalists and dissidents with Pegasus. Facebook sued NSO in the US in 2019. The allegation in the lawsuit is that NSO tried to access hundreds of smartphones through a security vulnerability in WhatsApp that was later patched. Among the targets were journalists, lawyers, dissidents, human rights activists, diplomats and government officials. NSO defends itself in court. The company emphasizes that contracts with customers have been terminated on suspicion of human rights violations.
NSO is also said to have played a role in the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi. According to the Washington Post, two of the smartphones on which Amnesty International’s IT experts found traces of Pegasus attacks belonged to women near Khashoggi. NSO denied that its software had anything to do with Khashoggi’s murder.