Have you ever heard of the program “Pegasus”? Me neither, until recently. And based on the nature of this software, it is obvious why it has not been much in the spotlight. In fact, Pegasus is one of the most advanced spywares on the market, with many governments purchasing and using it. Because of its powers and abilities, Pegasus allows those being in control of it to get inconceivable access to a person’s private life including location, contacts, messages and emails, health data, calendar entries, website history and much more. This plethora of personal information enables those who can get their hands on it to exert influence on their targets and track their every move. Although NSO Group, the company who devised the spyware, claims that its product “helps government agencies prevent and investigate terrorism and crime to save thousands of lives around the globe,” Amnesty International reported more sinister instances. This post will give you an overview of what exactly Pegasus does and what it is used for. It will also list some pros and cons regarding its use so that you as a reader can decide for yourself whether you agree with its use or rather condemn it.
What Exactly Is Pegasus and How Does It Work?
Pegasus is a spyware designed by an Isreali cybersecurity company that allows government agencies to precisely target, track, and spy on individuals that they classify as a security threat. What sets Pegasus apart from other more common spywares is its advanced technology which also includes so-called zero-click attacks. This means that the virus can be installed remotely without the need for its target to do anything. Whereas some victims reported that they received a cryptic message or weird link, which they did not open, other sources state that a mere missed Whatsapp call was enough for the virus to be installed. Once on the phone, the program provides the person sending the attack with every bit of information stored on it. Furthermore, Pegasus is able to turn on both camera and microphone which means that the target can be watched and eavesdropped.
Although NSO Group proudly declares on its official website that its software “help[s] governments maintain public safety” through its ability to target terrorists, the list of targets includes a variety of individuals such as journalists, activists, and politicians. For example, famous women’s rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul was allegedly spied on with Pegasus. It is believed that her abduction back to Saudi Arabia, where she was imprisoned and allegedly tortured, was a consequence of being tracked down by the spyware. Earlier this year, Spain’s Prime Minister and Defense Minister were both victims of the virus. This means that NSO’s claim that its product is only used for good causes is not fully true. Considering the complexity of this topic, I will list you some pros and cons of using this spyware so you can make up your own mind.
Pegasus as an Effective Tool Against Terrorism
As previously mentioned, Pegasus is advertised as one of the most effective weapons against terrorism. Therefore, it is not available to just everyone - the product’s price range is somewhere in the millions US dollars and it is only reserved for government actors to purchase. This means that Pegasus offers a much needed technological advantage to intelligence agencies in their surveillance efforts against terrorists and other national security threats.
One famous example of how NSO Group’s product helped in the fight against crime was when Mexico captured El Chapo with the use of Pegasus. In Europe, the spyware helped investigators in preventing terrorist attacks and break down pedophile sex rings. According to some experts, police and intelligence officers would not be able to celebrate such successes if it weren’t for spywares such as Pegasus. Especially with the current technology and the possibilities of the internet, which allow criminals to remain anonymous, it has become significantly more difficult for secret services to obtain intelligence. As such, Pegasus constitutes a meaningful and necessary tool in the fight against international crime and terrorism.
The Other Side of the Coin
However, there is also a more sinister side that comes with the availability of such powerful spyware. The sole fact that this software is only sold to governments does not necessarily negate the possibility of it being used for illegitimate purposes. Especially those who may uncover wrongdoings of governments, such as journalists or human rights activists, have been repeatedly targeted with help of Pegasus. Amnesty International’s Security Lab published a forensic report in 2021 which “uncovered widespread, persistent and ongoing unlawful surveillance and human rights abuses” committed by governments. Whereas this can have severe consequences for activists in authoritarian countries, including long prison sentences or even death, it can also have detrimental effects for human rights advocates and journalists in countries with less atrocious track records.
Although in the EU, the right to privacy is entrenched in both the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union as well as the European Convention of Human Rights, there are limits to it. Especially when it comes to national security, Member States maintain wide discretion which allows police or secret service agencies to interfere with the right to private life. After several terrorist attacks in the last decade, many Member States have strengthened their security laws to allow police to crack down on potential national security threats by overriding fundamental human rights at times. As such, several Member States have already been classified as surveillance states that are increasingly committing unsupervised targeted surveillance. This includes countries like France, Poland, Hungary, or Germany. Nevertheless, with increased instances of Pegasus attacks on politicians within the EU, the European Data Protection Supervisor already requested an EU wide ban of Pegasus based on its potentially detrimental effects on fundamental rights and freedoms. Furthermore, the European Parliament set up an investigation committee to further assess the situation and potential responses. Consequently, awareness of Pegasus and its dangers is growing on EU level. Still, it remains to be seen if anything will come out of it.
Who is Safe from It?
Unfortunately, because one of Pegasus’ main selling points is the fact that it is almost undetectable once installed, even the most computer savvy people cannot properly protect themselves from it. According to Claudio Guarnieri, head of Amnesty International’s Berlin based Security Lab, there is nothing you can do to stop Pegasus from being installed on your phone. So the question remains: Is the lack of control and safeguards over who gets targeted by this spyware worth the ability to fight crime and terrorism more effectively? Or should there be stronger safeguards and accountability mechanisms for the sale and use of such a powerful tool?