Foreign governments have reportedly used NSO’s Pegasus spyware to obtain private photos from the phones of female journalists and activists.
Several high-profile journalists and activists have allegedly been targeted and harassed by authoritarian governments in the Middle East with help of Pegasus. One of them has been Ghada Oueiss, a Lebanese broadcast journalist at Al-Jazeera, known to have been critical of the Saudi government. A photo of Oueiss when she was wearing a bikini in a jacuzzi was being circulated on Twitter accompanied by allegations that the pictures were taken at her boss’s house. Oueiss was attacked by a barrage of messages, where she was being called a prostitute and attacking her credibility as a journalist.
Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and his fiancé’s phones were also hacked using spyware. Khashoggi, a critic of Saudi royalty, was murdered at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul in October 2018.
According to an investigation by the Washington Post and 16 other media organisations, 37 smartphones belonging to journalists, human rights activists, business executives and two women close to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi were hacked using the spyware.
Details of these phones appeared on 50,000 numbers in countries that were known to engage in surveillance of their citizens. On examining time stamps of when the surveillance was initiated on these numbers, there seems to be a tight correlation between the 37 numbers. Amnesty International and Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit had access to the list and shared it with the news organizations.
“Pegasus is a spyware tool and a weapon used against freedom of the press, freedom of expression, human rights activism and journalism,” said Rasha Abdul Rahim, director of Amnesty Tech told NBC news. The spyware which can infect devices via SMS texts, iMessage, or WhatsApp, can secretly on the camera, record audio and video.
French intelligence investigators confirmed that the Pegasus spyware was detected in phones of three journalists including a senior member of staff at the country’s international television station France 24. The Guardian had reported that spyware was found on the phones of France 24 journalist, Lénaïg Bredoux, an investigative journalist at the French investigative website Mediapart, and the site’s director Edwy Plenel.
As per the police, the phones of the France 24 journalists was targeted for surveillance in May 2019, September 2020 and January 2021 and personal images of the journalists were obtained.