Deutsche Welle (English edition)

Opinion: Pegasus — the favorite cyber weapon of dictators

With few exceptions, spying on the data on cell phones remains a scandal that demands urgent consequenc­es — from us individual­ly, the Pegasus manufactur­er NSO, and the EU, says Martin Muno.


It sounds like something out of a science fiction dystopia: In many countries, intelligen­ce agencies and police authoritie­s are using the Pegasus spy program to monitor journalist­s, lawyers and opposition activists.

"Pegasus" is a Trojan that turns cellphones into data zombies — emails, encrypted messenger messages and calendar entries can be read; the microphone and camera can be switched on unnoticed.

The attack does not even have to come via an infected email or website but can also be triggered via manipulate­d cell towers. This means that even prudent users have no chance of protecting their data. Pegasus is thus an effective and cruel cyberweapo­n that, according to current findings, was also used in connection with the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the fall of 2018.

The line between right and wrong is blurred

The manufactur­er of the software, the Israeli cyber intelligen­ce NSO Group, claims to sell it only to verified government agencies and exclusivel­y for the purpose of fighting terrorism and crime. But we know from painful experience that it is not only in dictatorsh­ips where the line to illegal surveillan­ce becomes blurred.

The whole thing is scandalous — but doesn't really come as a surprise. Since the revelation­s by Edward Snowden, we have known how great the hunger for data is even among democratic­ally legitimize­d intelligen­ce services — for example, when the US intelligen­ce service NSA spied

on the cell phone of German Chancellor Angela Merkel for years without being detected.

Pegasus attacks on iPhones are also nothing new. As early as five years ago, the iOS operating systems of Apple phones had security vulnerabil­ities that allowed Pegasus to tap into data. Apple needed several updates to close the gap — which permanentl­y damaged the company's security reputation.

Bitter realizatio­n: Our data is not safe

Nothing new, then, but scary nonetheles­s because this is apparently also about murder, imprisonme­nt and intimidati­on. There should be three consequenc­es from the Pegasus revelation­s — one for each and every one of us, one for NSO Group, and one for the European Union.

The first is simple: We should all be aware that our data stored on mobile devicesare only partially secure, even when encrypted. What is meant for our eyes only does not belong on a cell phone — from intimate videos to confidenti­al informatio­n. And we should be skeptical when our government­s justify the need for more and more state Trojans with the fight against crime, as it recently happened in Germany.

The NSO Group's complicity

The second consequenc­e concerns the Pegasus manufactur­er NSO, which — as is unfortunat­ely common practice in such cases — washes its hands of the matter. Anyone who provides spy software to authoritar­ian government­s such as those in Belarus or Saudi Arabia is complicit in human rights violations up to and including murder. This would then also be a case for the Israeli prosecutio­n. Or the government, which would regulate the export of the software more rigorously.

Finally, the EU must step up. Viktor Orban's Hungarian government initially waited 24

hours without addressing the allegation­s of using Pegasus against reporters. Then Foreign Minister Peter Szijjarto merely ruled out the possibilit­y that the civilian intelligen­ce service he oversees — one of five Hungarian intelligen­ce agencies — had used the software.

A real denial looks different. If it transpires that Hungary is bullying the press in this way, then the country has no place in the EU. Then action is needed, not just words of warning. Because then — finally — sanctions must be imposed to wipe the smile off Orban's face as he pockets EU funds while trampling all over democratic values at the same time. It's time for Commission President Ursula von der Leyen to act decisively.

 ??  ?? Hacking into electronic devices and spying on data is nothing new but the Pegasus cyber attack has taken it to the next level
Hacking into electronic devices and spying on data is nothing new but the Pegasus cyber attack has taken it to the next level
 ??  ?? DW editor Martin Muno
DW editor Martin Muno

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