The Pegasus Project: A Year Later, Spyware Crisis Continues After Surveillance Industry Crackdown Fails

A year after the Project Pegasus revelations, the lack of a global moratorium on the sale of spyware allows the surveillance industry to continue unchecked, Amnesty International warned today.

Project Pegasus exposed how governments around the world were using NSO Group’s invasive Pegasus spyware to place human rights activists, political leaders, journalists and lawyers around the world under unlawful surveillance.

Following repeated calls for the surveillance industry to be regulated, some steps have been taken in the right direction – but government action has not yet been enough.

Anyone targeted by NSO Group spyware has the right to a remedy

Danna Ingleton, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech

“A year after the Pegasus spyware revelations shocked the world, it is alarming that surveillance companies are still profiting from human rights abuses on a global scale,” said Danna Ingleton, Deputy Director of Amnesty Tech.

“Project Pegasus has sounded the alarm that urgent action is needed to regulate an industry out of control. Unfortunately, governments around the world have yet to step up and fully address this digital surveillance crisis.

“Anyone targeted by NSO Group spyware has the right to a remedy. The failure of world governments to take meaningful action is an insult to all who have suffered, physically and psychologically, after being targeted by this invasive software.

“Illegal targeted surveillance of human rights defenders and civil society is a tool of repression. It is time to crack down on this industry that continues to operate in the shadows.

The Pegasus Project was a collaboration between journalists from 17 media outlets in 10 countries, coordinated by Forbidden Stories. Amnesty International’s Security Lab used digital forensic testing and cutting-edge research methodologies to confirm evidence of targeting and infections on dozens of phones around the world.

Last year, the Security Lab discovered new cases of targeting using Pegasus in Morocco-Western Sahara and Poland. Additionally, the Security Lab has independently confirmed numerous other instances where Pegasus was still being used to illegally target people, including instances in El Salvador, Israel/Occupied Palestinian Territories, Poland, and Spain.

Unlawful surveillance violates the right to privacy and may also violate the rights to freedom of expression, opinion, association, and peaceful assembly.

“A very violent form of censorship”

Amnesty International has investigated illegal surveillance for many years. There is growing evidence of human rights abuses by governments and how corporations profit from unlawful targeted surveillance.

Every month, new cases are confirmed of people targeted by Pegasus. Amnesty International interviewed several people infected with Pegasus, who expressed their distress at being targeted.

That’s their goal: to make you paranoid, isolate you from people and lock you in a prison

Hicham Mansouri, Moroccan journalist

Julia Gavarrete, a journalist in El Salvador, said: “It is a shame that a powerful crime-fighting tool is being used to attack independent journalists and human rights defenders. It’s a shame we have no idea who was behind the targeting. It is impossible not to feel angry when our whole life is in someone else’s hands, and there is no answer as to who is responsible for it.

“Being targeted has made me change the way I communicate, the places I used to go, and also think twice about what kind of information I want to share with others – not just to my own safety, but to protect the integrity of those who communicate with me. I have to be aware of the places we visit and try to be very careful whenever we have our devices around…As a journalist, I have to protect my sources, but as a woman, I have to protect my family and friends.Surveillance brings indignity towards our professional life and our private life.

Hicham Mansouri, a Moroccan journalist living in France, described being targeted as “a very violent form of censorship, because you are deprived of expressing yourself on many subjects both professionally and personally”. He added: “That’s their goal: to make you paranoid, isolate you from people and lock you in a prison.”

Ongoing investigations

There are currently open investigations and ongoing cases against NSO Group in France, India, Mexico, Poland and Spain. In March, the European Parliament created the PEGA Committee to investigate the use of Pegasus and other spyware in Europe.

In November 2021, the United States government placed NSO Group on its List of entities, for “engaging in activities contrary to national security or foreign policy interests”. Later that month, Apple sued against NSO Group for holding it responsible for monitoring and targeting Apple users.

In recent weeks, it has been reported that the American defense company L3Harris is in talks purchase ownership of the Pegasus software. The future of NSO Group remains uncertain.

“Any attempt by NSO Group to change its business model in an effort to avoid liability must be resisted. The whole surveillance industry is broken and in urgent need of reform,” said Danna Ingleton.

“We continue to call for a global moratorium on the sale, transfer and use of spyware until the regulatory human rights safeguards that govern its use are in place.”

States have binding obligations under international law not only to respect human rights, but also to protect them from abuse by third parties, including private companies.

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