The Pegasus Spyware Scandal Highlights the Threats Activists and Journalists Face

  • Sparkle Dennis
A photo of a woman wearing a mask looking at a computer for cyber intelligence

In the summer of 2021, the news broke that governments across the world used the Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to spy on human rights activists, journalists, political dissidents, and even heads of state. A list of over 50,000 phone numbers targeted for surveillance by Pegasus’ customers was leaked to Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, sparking a major investigation named the Pegasus Project. Although Pegasus was originally developed and marketed as a tool to target terrorists and criminals, the leaked list demonstrates that the spyware has been widely misused.

The spyware can access a staggering amount of information on targets’ phones, including SMS messages, phone calls, photos, contacts, and emails. It can also turn on cameras, activate microphones, and transmit GPS data. Unfortunately, the Pegasus scandal is just the tip of the iceberg. There are hundreds of commercial spyware programs on the market, some even more powerful than Pegasus. These spyware programs are used by authoritarian and repressive countries that claim journalists, dissidents, and human rights activists are criminals or national security threats, making them worthy of intrusive surveillance. This misuse of spyware hinders accountable and democratic governance and undermines human rights across the globe.

In 2020 alone, at least 331 human rights activists and over 50 journalists, and it was the deadliest year on record for environmental activists. Guardian and other media outlets discovered that Pegasus was used to target people close to Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabian journalist and dissident, both before and after his murder. Another example is Ahmed Mansoor, companies criticized by human rights organizations for selling their spyware to repressive countries who use it to silence and punish critics.

At the heart of this issue is a mostly unregulated industry that has grown dramatically in the past decade and is shrouded by secrecy. Once only available to wealthier countries, commercial spyware is now accessible to many nations, including routine human rights violators. While over 90 percent of spyware manufacturers are based in democratic countries, the majority of their customers are considered authoritarian or hybrid regimes. There are no substantial regulations on the sale or transfer of commercial spyware like Pegasus and the lack of transparency in the industry prevents accountability. Without regulations and transparency, spyware will continue to be used by authoritarian and repressive states to target activists and journalists.

IRI recognizes that democratic activists and journalists across the globe face increasing censorship and state surveillance intended to thwart their efforts to promote rights and freedom. IRI’s Technology & Democracy programming supports activists and journalists by providing the tools, training, and resources they need to keep safe and circumvent government surveillance. For example, in the Caribbean IRI led a Digital Security for Investigative Journalists training where participants learned how to use digital security tools to protect and encrypt their digital information from hacking and government surveillance. In addition, the training provided the participating journalists with best practices on how to encode personal files using VeraCrypt and how to securely share files using open-source tools such as OnionShare.

International partners like IRI can play a real role in countering the threat of digitally enabled authoritarianism and ensuring that the digital revolution supports democratic principles. It is essential that cyber security and digital safety capacity building are included in repressive and closed society democracy development programs, but especially in locations where journalists and activists experience increased state surveillance. Additionally, real action needs to be taken by democratic countries to regulate the sale of commercial spyware to authoritarian countries that are likely to use it to target activists, journalists, and political dissidents. Turning a blind eye to these sales undermines human rights everywhere.

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