Analysis Breaking

Israeli firm’s software used to spy on journalists, politicians, human-rights activists, reports investigation by Washington Post, Amnesty and others

List of 50,000 phone numbers of interest to NSO ‘Pegasus’ software clients has leaked

A list of phone numbers ‘of interest’ to clients of Israeli spyware firm NSO Group has been leaked and will be revealed later this week by French non-profit journalism organisation Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International, with an investigation by the Washington Post and 16 other media groups reporting that clients using NSO’s ‘Pegasus’ military-grade spyware include governments known to conduct surveillance of their own citizens.

It would, of course, be astonishing if the UK government is not already using this or similar programmes.

NSO says Pegasus is only used to spy on ‘terrorists and serious criminals’, but the leaked list includes numbers of journalists, human-rights activists, heads of state, royals, prime ministers – and the fiancée of murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as of murdered Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda Birto. NSO has described the allegations as ‘baseless’ and said it does not know the specific activities engaged in by their clients.

According to the Washington Post, the software was used in multiple ‘attempted and successful hacks’ of numbers in the leaked list – including the phone of Khashoggi’s fiancée. 189 journalists are on the list.

US journalist Whitney Webb points out that NSO’s founders also created a venture capital business that funds cybersecurity firm Sepio Systems, run by a former chair of the board of Israeli intelligence:

According to Electronic Intifada‘s Ali Abunimah, NSO’s founders were members of the Israeli military’s ‘Unit 8200′ – the same unit for which Keir Starmer’s ‘social listening’ specialist worked. According to ex-8200 whistleblowers, the unit’s members used to mark an ‘X’ on their headset for each assassination their surveillance had facilitated.

Musician Lowkey added to the debate by pointing out that a firm that helped run this year’s UK census has an ‘exclusive cybersecurity deal’ with another firm founded by Unite 8200 members – exposing the personal information of UK citizens:

Lowkey also correctly observed that the human rights and privacy of more than just journalists and government officials are potentially compromised by the numbers in the leaked report:

The singer has also published a Twitter thread detailing other Unit 8200-founded firms and their access to citizens’ information.

When governments wish to maintain power without the consent of their peoples, such surveillance and intrustion become a key method for controlling the population. Is there serious doubt that the UK – already linked to some of these spyware firms – is headed in that direction under the Tories and in the absence of a functional opposition?

Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International say they will reveal more details about the targeted individuals contained in the list in the course of this week.

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