The Washington Post on Tuesday revealed that three presidents, 10 prime ministers, and a king are among the more than 50,000 individuals whose phone numbers appeared on a leaked list of potential targets of Pegasus,
the military-grade spyware licensed by Israeli firm NSO Group, prompting human rights defenders to call for a global crackdown on the surveillance industry's invasive technologies.
According to the Post, the phone numbers of hundreds of public officials, including 14 heads of state and government, appeared on the list. It was not possible to confirm if the world leaders' smartphones had been infected with Pegasus, however, because none agreed to a forensic analysis of their iPhones or Android devices.
The newspaper reported that the list included three siting presidents (France's Emmanuel Macron, Iraq's Barham Salih, and South Africa's Cyril Ramaphosa) and three current prime ministers (Egypt's Mostafa Madbouly, Morocco's Saad-Eddine El Othmani, and Pakistan's Imran Khan). Also on the list were seven former prime ministers, whose numbers were added while they were still in office, according to time stamps.
"If 10 prime ministers and three presidents can't be safe from mercenary spyware, what chance do the rest of us stand?" asked John Scott Railton, a senior researcher at Citizen Lab, part of the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy at the University of Toronto. "Since the hacking industry is incapable of self-control, governments must step up."
Railton's message was echoed by Edward Snowden, the American whistleblower who has lived in Russia with asylum protections since leaking classified materials on U.S. government mass surveillance in 2013.
"No one is safe from the out-of-control designer spyware industry," said Snowden. "Export controls have failed as a means of regulating this easily abused technology. Without an immediate global moratorium on the trade, this will only get worse."
After obtaining the leaked list of phone numbers, Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based media nonprofit, and Amnesty International shared the data with more than 80 journalists from 17 news outlets in 10 countries. The media consortium's collaborative investigation, dubbed the Pegasus Project, was first made public on Sunday. Since then, partner newsrooms have been disclosing more information about the worldwide reach of Pegasus, NSO's signature hacking tool.
As the Post reported Tuesday:
NSO—just one of several major players in this market—says it has 60 government agency clients in 40 countries. In every case, the company says, the targets are supposed to be terrorists and criminals, such as pedophiles, drug lords, and human traffickers. The company says it specifically prohibits targeting law-abiding citizens, including government officials carrying out their ordinary business.
But recent revelations about the targeting of activists, journalists, and politicians contradict NSO's claims.
Etienne Maynier, a technologist at Amnesty's Security Lab, said Sunday in a statement that the Pegasus Project hopes "the damning evidence published over the next week will lead governments to overhaul a surveillance industry that is out of control."
So far, there has been a strong outcry from experts and critics who say that Pegasus malware has been used to facilitate human rights violations around the world.
U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet said Monday in a statement that the revelations "are extremely alarming, and seem to confirm some of the worst fears about the potential misuse of surveillance technology to illegally undermine people's human rights."
"If the recent allegations about the use of Pegasus are even partly true," she added, "then that red line has been crossed again and again with total impunity."
Agnès Callamard, secretary general of Amnesty International, on Sunday argued that "the number of journalists identified as targets vividly illustrates how Pegasus is used as a tool to intimidate critical media. It is about controlling [the] public narrative, resisting scrutiny, and suppressing any dissenting voice."
"Until this company and the industry as a whole can show it is capable of respecting human rights," she added, "there must be an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology."
(Kenny Stancil is a staff writer for Common Dreams where this column first appeared.)