Between June 2020 and February 2021, the iPhones of nine Bahraini activists, including two dissidents exiled in London and three members of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, were hacked using Pegasus spyware developed by NSO Group, an Israeli company from cyber surveillance. Regulated by the Ministry of Defense of Israel.
The attacks were revealed in a new report from the Citizen Lab at the University of Toronto, which has studied Pegasus extensively along with related nefarious modern phenomena.
As The Guardian points out, Pegasus is “perhaps the most powerful spyware ever developed” and can turn a mobile phone into a “24-hour surveillance device” – it collects messages, passwords, photos, Internet searches and other data and takes the camera and microphone control.
All of this can be done through “zero click” technology, which means that one does not have to click on a compromised link or do anything else to get the phone infected.
As if Bahraini human rights activists didn’t have enough on their plates in a happy reign of torture before, you know, the total destruction of the right to privacy.
And yet the Citizen Lab report is simply the latest episode in the dystopian sci-fi thriller we currently live on earth.
In July, Project Pegasus, a consortium of 17 media outlets working with Amnesty International and the Paris-based NGO Forbidden Stories, revealed a leaked list of more than 50,000 smartphone numbers from around the world. Most of the figures were concentrated in countries known to have been NSO clients, suggesting that the list was a compilation of potential surveillance targets.
The Washington Post, one of the affiliated media, explained that so far 37 of the phones included in the list had been confirmed as targets of an attempted or successful hacking by Pegasus spyware. The owners of the phones included journalists, activists and “the two women closest to the Saudi columnist” Jamal Khashoggi, who was assassinated by Saudi state agents on October 2, 2018.
Exactly one day before the assassination, Citizen Lab had warned with “great confidence” that the phone of Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi critic in Canada, had been infected by Pegasus. It turned out that Abdulaziz was a close friend and frequent correspondent for Khashoggi.
And while NSO representatives strenuously deny complicity in any type of crime, the list of coincidences continues.
More than 15,000 of the 50,000 phone numbers, for example, were in Mexico, which has the distinction of having been NSO’s first international client-logging-guinea pig in 2011. Reflecting on the fate of Mexican freelance reporter Cecilio Pineda, who was shot dead in a hammock after his number appeared twice on the infamous list, the Washington Post released the disclaimer: “It is unclear what role, if any, Pegasus’s ability to geolocate its targets in real time contributed to his murder. “
According to Reuters, Mexican government agencies signed contracts for more than $ 160 million with NSO Group between 2011 and 2018, mainly during the reign of right-wing President Enrique Peña Nieto. Thanks to the investment, Pegasus operators were able to target, among other things, investigators investigating the forced disappearance of 43 students in the state of Guerrero by Mexican security forces in 2014. The wife, the sons and the cardiologist on the left. the politician Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who has since succeeded Peña Nieto.
Back in Bahrain, Citizen Lab has verified that five of the nine recently hacked numbers appear on the Project Pegasus list. Although Bahrain and Israel only formally normalized relations last year, a bilateral affinity preceded the official declaration of love, and the Bahrain government is believed to have added Pegasus spyware to its repressive arsenal in 2017.
It is certainly not difficult to see why the “most powerful spyware ever developed” could be useful in a place known for suppressing, detaining, torturing and killing protesters, not to mention revoking the citizenship of Bahraini citizens who are too committed to things like human rights, activism, journalism, and other threatening activities.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE), which also celebrated normalization with Israel last year, has long been in bed with Israeli spy technology, as evidenced by a massive civilian surveillance system called Falcon Eye installed in Abu Dhabi by a Israeli-owned company.
A Middle East Eye article from 2015 quoted a source close to Falcon Eye about their duties: “All people are monitored from the moment they leave your door to the moment they return. Their work, social and behavioral patterns are recorded, analyzed and archived ”.
As if that wasn’t enough Big Brother, the phone of the author of that article ended up ending, where else? – on the Project Pegasus list.
Meanwhile, in 2016, analysts documented a Pegasus hacking attempt against the decorated Emirati human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor, who is currently incarcerated for crimes as heinous as insulting the “status and prestige of the United Arab Emirates” . After all, what could be criticized in a prestigious country where civil liberties have been eliminated and replaced by shopping malls and artificial islands, and where people suspected of opposing the deal are eligible for jail time, torture and disappearance?
So far NSO’s “Human Rights Policy”, which appears on the company’s website and is said to imply “contractual obligations that require NSO customers to limit the use of the company’s products to prevention and investigation. of serious crimes, including terrorism, and to guarantee that the products will not be used to violate human rights ”.
Apparently as an added safeguard, the Israeli Defense Ministry must approve all sales of NSO spyware to customers around the world.
Of course, given that Israel’s own definition of counterterrorism implies, such as bombing Palestinian civilians, it is not difficult to see how human rights could get in the way.
Indeed, Israel’s unique position as an apartheid state and violent occupying power has given it a significant advantage in the export of traditional weapons, as well as cybersecurity products and other repressive knowledge, all proven in battle with real Palestinians.
As of 2016, Israel already owned the highest number of surveillance companies per capita on the entire planet. And as the case of NSO and Pegasus illustrates, the private surveillance industry may soar to ever greater heights thanks to a host of ex-Israeli military cyberspies eager to get in on the action in a lucrative and largely unregulated field.
In 2019, by the way, Facebook-owned WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against NSO over accusations of hacking, a legal fight that is ongoing and has since joined Microsoft and other tech giants. It does not matter that several of these teams have been implicated in the censorship of Palestinian journalists and activists, or that Microsoft once invested in an Israeli facial recognition company that was secretly monitoring Palestinians in the West Bank.
For an equally strong ethic, look no further than the Associated Press article from Aug. 4 that specifies that the Oregon state employee pension fund was “one of the largest investors, if not the largest” investor in the majority-owned private equity firm of NSO Group. .
In its new report on Bahrain, Citizen Lab notes that “under the guise of addressing COVID-19, the government of Bahrain has imposed further restrictions on freedom of expression.” It’s certainly less comforting, then, that Naftali Bennett, the former Israeli far-right defense minister who in 2020 proposed enlisting the NSO to fight the coronavirus, is now Israel’s prime minister.
And as Israel’s mission to normalize the annihilation of Palestinian rights advances alongside the normalization of mass espionage and the effective criminalization of freedom of thought, we must not lose sight of the fact that none of this is really normal at all.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Al Jazeera.