What’s the most problematic tech company in the world? Facebook? Google? Palantir? Nope. It’s a small, privately held Israeli company called NSO that most people have never heard of. On its website, it describes itself as “a world leader in precision cyberintelligence solutions”. Its software, sold only to “licensed government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies”, naturally, helps them to “lawfully address the most dangerous issues in today’s world. NSO’s technology has helped prevent terrorism, break up criminal operations, find missing people and assist search and rescue teams.”
So what is this magical stuff? It’s called Pegasus and it is ultra-sophisticated spyware that covertly penetrates and compromises smartphones. It’s particularly good with Apple phones, which is significant because these devices are generally more secure than Android ones. This is positively infuriating to Apple, which views protecting its users’ privacy as one of its USPs.
How does Pegasus work? Pay attention, iPhone users, journalists and heads of government: your cherished and trusted device will emit no beep or other sound when it’s being hijacked. But the intruder has gained entry and from then on everything on your phone becomes instantly accessible to whoever is running the spyware. Your camera can be secretly activated to take photographs, for example, and your microphone switched on at the whim of a distant watcher or listener. Everything you type on iMessage or WhatApp will be read and logged. And you will have no idea that this is happening. You’ve been “Pegasused”, as it were. And the perpetrator may well be a government, which is interesting if you happen to be a president like Emmanuel Macron or a prime minister like Imran Khan, but potentially fatal if you happen to be a journalist like Jamal Khashoggi. Those of us who follow these things have known about NSO for quite a while, mainly thanks to the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which is the nearest thing civil society has to the National Security Agency. Its researchers have done sterling work tracing the ways in which journalists’ phones have been Pegasused by authoritarian regimes. In December last year, for example, the Lab published the report of an investigation that showed how Pegasus spyware had been used to hack into 36 personal phones belonging to journalists, producers, anchors and executives at Al Jazeera and a phone of a London-based journalist at Al Araby TV. The phones were compromised using an invisible zero-click exploit in iMessage. The hacking was done by four Pegasus customers, two of which appeared to be Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
NSO is basically the same as an arms manufacturer, because its software is regarded by its home government as a weapon
There’s a good deal more where that came from. NSO’s invariable corporate response is that contractual confidentiality prevents it from identifying its clients and that the company doesn’t itself operate the spyware - it just sells it to sovereign governments and is therefore not responsible for what they do with it. If that reminds you of another industry that sells powerful and potentially dangerous products, then join the club. NSO is basically the same as an arms manufacturer, because its software is regarded by its home government as a weapon and the company needs an export licence before it can sell to anyone. From which we might infer that regimes that get their paws on Pegasus are ones of which the government of Israel covertly or tacitly approves.
NSO is back in the news because Amnesty International, in collaboration with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and 16 media organisations, including the Guardian, has launched The Pegasus project, aimed at uncovering who might have fallen victim to the spyware and to tell their stories. The project was triggered when a consortium of journalists gained access to a leak of more than 50,000 phone numbers allegedly entered into a system used for targeting by Pegasus. The list makes for interesting reading, not least because it identifies the governments that are likely to be assiduous users of Pegasus. They include Mexico, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Hungary, India, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and – interestingly – Rwanda.
Until now, NSO’s activities seemed unstoppable: in a Westphalian world of sovereign states that can do what they like, if your home government gives you a licence to export then you’re in business. But recently, three things have changed. First, and most importantly, there are new administrations at the helm in Israel and the US. If Joe Biden decided that NSO’s activities have suddenly become unacceptable, then a serious phone call to the Israeli prime minister might have an effect. Second, Apple is mightily pissed off about having its iPhones compromised and it has more technical clout than even NSO hackers. And finally, the Amnesty project has suddenly brought NSO, blinking, out of the shadows and into the light. Some good may come of this.
What I’ve been reading
Why Is China Smashing its Tech Industry? is a fascinating essay by Noah Smith on his blog. Maybe it’s because the country knows what’s really important.
Friends in bad places
Prabhat Patnaik has written a vigorous polemic in the Boston Review on why neoliberalism needs neofascists.
There is a wonderful farewell piece by Jack Thomas in the Boston Globe, written after he was diagnosed with inoperable cancer.