Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
In a massive data leak, spyware technology called Pegasus has been revealed to have been used to spy on activists, political leaders and journalists since 2016. The breach disclosed that over 50,000 phone numbers were chosen by NSO Group as ‘persons of interest’ for their clients to install the Pegasus spyware on – one of the most recent being France’s President Macron. NSO, the Israeli company that manufactured the Pegasus spyware, has denied any wrongdoing.
The Pegasus spyware allows access to messages, emails, contacts, social media, and can also be utilised to turn on the user’s camera and microphone without detection. The clientele for this software has so far included Saudi Arabia, the UAE, India and Hungary. The primary targets have been journalists, including the murdered critic of the Saudi Arabian regime, Jamal Khashoggi, and Hungarian investigative journalists Szabolcs Panyi and Andreas Szabo. At best, it appears that the NSO Group were miserably naive as to what their clients were using their technology for; at worst, they were the willing participants of various human rights abuses.
The news comes as no surprise. It is perfectly sensical that authoritarian governments would take such an opportunity, and it makes equal business sense for NSO to sell its product to whomever is willing to pay for it. This is the nature of spying, and Pegasus was felt to be the best spyware on the market.
The trouble is that there is not much to say about this; it is overwhelmingly bleak in its authoritarianism. One of the difficulties we find ourselves in is that now, with the use of spyware increasing by certain regimes, such behaviour is normalised; the discourse surrounding it becomes repetitive. It comes as no surprise that Saudi Arabia would use Pegasus spyware to keep tabs on its largest critics. For the general populace, there is little to do but exclaim, ‘isn’t this awful!’, and then move on. Meanwhile the journalists decry that it is against freedom and free speech, impinging upon our inalienable human rights. This is met with an awesome shrug: what can we do? The journalist is left dumbfounded, but the crowd has gone, and Pegasus has bolted.
Maybe there is room for optimism. At least, we might say, this goes some way to put pressure on the false adage ‘if you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear’. Such reasoning wholly misses the point, and the Pegasus Project proves this. The power imbalance that grants a government the ability to snoop creates a climate of fear, deterring would-be investigations from getting off the ground. Corruption cements itself with murder. In fact, the adage should be modified in the light of Pegasus: if you don’t have something to reveal, you have nothing to fear. As such we see the absurdity of this famous argument regarding privacy: hide nothing, say nothing, goes the wisdom.