Anger and accusations worldwide as Pegasus spy scandal deepens

A file photo of a woman using her iPhone in front of the building housing the Israeli NSO group ‘Pegasus’, in Herzliya, near Tel Aviv. Leaks suggest that Pegasus was widely used by the intelligence services of multiple countries and used to hack the phones of political opponents, journalists and activists worldwide. — AFP

Consternation is growing internationally following a series of leaks about the Israeli-produced Pegasus surveillance software.

The programme, created by cybersecurity firm NSO, is designed to take advantage of security gaps in smartphone software to access private data.

The leaks suggest that Pegasus was widely used by the intelligence services of multiple countries and used to hack the phones of political opponents, journalists and activists worldwide.

Prosecutors in Paris said on Tuesday they had begun an investigation into the software, after reports that Pegasus was being used to scour the phones of journalists and activists.

A list of phone numbers in a leaked database included the number of the French President Emmanuel Macron, according to the Le Monde and The Guardian newspapers. The mobile numbers of a further 13 heads of state and heads of government were also on the list, The Guardian reported.

Revelations kept on coming on Wednesday. However, most were countered by stringent denials or refusals to comment.

In Spain, national daily El Pais reported that the Spanish government may have use Pegasus to spy on four prominent Catalan separatists, including Roger Torrent, who until March this year was the president of the Parliament of Catalonia.

Torrent immediately accused the Spanish government of waging a “dirty war” against Catalan separatism. Madrid quickly denied any involvement or knowledge of spying on Torrent or any other Catalan separatists.

The Guardian also reported that government clients of NSO selected the phone numbers of more than 15,000 Mexicans as possible surveillance targets in 2016 and 2017. Among them, according to the report, were at least 50 people associated with Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

The head of South Africa’s Amnesty International branch, Shenilla Mohamed, accused the government of Rwanda of spying on opposition members in its own country and perhaps even on South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa.

Speaking on South African TV station SABC, she said: “Rwanda is a client of the NSO group; our analysis has shown that Rwanda has around 3,500 activists, journalists and opposition party leaders under surveillance”.

Ramaphosa’s office refused to comment on questions about the leak on Wednesday.

Morocco also issued a denial on Wednesday that it had employed Pegasus to spy on citizens and foreign officials.

“The kingdom of Morocco strongly condemns the persistent false, massive and malicious media campaign, evoking an alleged infiltration of the telephone devices of several national and foreign public figures,” the government said.

The allegations have prompted Amazon Web Services (AWS) to disconnect NSO’s access to the US company’s cloud services. In turn, NSO has denied the allegations against it and has disputed details of some of the reports.

The Israeli government announced on Wednesday that it was forming a special team to deal with the fallout from the media revelations about the Pegasus software, the Axios website reported. – dpa

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