- Investigation by news outlets does not specify if surveillance attempt on prime minister's number was successful
- Reveals more than 180 journalists were selected in 21 countries by at least 12 NSO clients
Prime Minister Imran Khan, a number of Kashmiri leaders, Pakistani diplomats, Chinese journalists, Sikh activists, and business people were selected as potential targets of the Israeli-made Pegasus spyware program, a global investigation has revealed.
However, the investigation did not specify whether the surveillance attempt on the number of Pakistan's prime minister was successful. The extent of the use of Pegasus was reported by The Washington Post, the Guardian, Le Monde and other news outlets who collaborated on an investigation into a data leak.
Pegasus is a hacking software that was developed, marketed, and licensed to governments around the world by the Israeli company NSO Group. NSO Group is based in the Israeli hi-tech hub of Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. It is reportedly a highly invasive tool that can switch on a target's phone camera and microphone, as well as access data on the device, effectively turning a phone into a pocket spy.
In some cases, it can be installed without the need to trick a user into initiating a download. The spyware has the capability to infect billions of phones running either iOS or Android operating systems.
According to the Pegasus Project investigation, out of the 50,000 phone numbers leaked, over 1,000 Indian numbers were also selected as potential targets.
According to The Guardian, the numbers “strongly indicate that intelligence agencies within the Indian government were operating the system.”
“India has not confirmed nor denied whether it is a client of NSO and its regulation does not require the government to disclose the use of such technology,” according to Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.
Reacting to the leaks, Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Fawad Chaudhry said that "unethical policies of Modi government have dangerously polarised India and the region."
The investigation further reveals more than 180 journalists were selected in 21 countries by at least 12 NSO clients.
The potential targets and clients hail from Bahrain, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, India, Mexico, Hungary, Azerbaijan, Togo, and Rwanda.
Journalists from Agence France-Presse, The Wall Street Journal, CNN, The New York Times, Al Jazeera, France 24, Radio Free Europe, Mediapart, El Pais, the Associated Press (AP), Le Monde, Bloomberg, The Economist, Reuters, and Voice of America were targeted by the spyware, the Guardian said.
The Pegasus spyware was also used to target phones belonging to two women close to Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in 2018 in Turkey, according to The Washington Post.
"We are deeply troubled to learn that two AP journalists, along with journalists from many news organizations, are among those who may have been targeted by Pegasus spyware," said Director of AP Media Relations Lauren Easton.
"We have taken steps to ensure the security of our journalists’ devices and are investigating," she added. "Journalists must be allowed to report the news in the public interest without fear of harassment or harm, wherever they are. We are aware of the report and are looking into the matter," Reuters' spokesman Dave Moran said.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International called for the regulation of surveillance software.
"Until this company (NSO) and the industry as a whole can show it is capable of respecting human rights, there must be an immediate moratorium on the export, sale, transfer, and use of surveillance technology," the rights group said.
NSO has issued a denial terming the reports full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories and threatened a defamation lawsuit.
“We firmly deny the false allegations made in their report,” NSO said.
“As NSO has previously stated, our technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi,” the company said.
“We would like to emphasize that NSO sells its technologies solely to law enforcement and intelligence agencies of vetted governments for the sole purpose of saving lives through preventing crime and terror acts,” it said.
With additional input from AFP