Raising Concerns Over Press Freedom, Israel's NSO Reportedly Sold Ghana Surveillance Tech

Deal by controversial cyberspying technology maker revealed in governmental report

FILE PHOTO: Logo of the Israeli NSO Group company on a building in Herzliya, Israel, August 25, 2016.
Daniella Cheslow/AP

NSO Group, the controversial Israeli maker of cyberspying technology, sold its Pegasus system for hacking mobile phones to the government of Ghana sometime around 2016, a business news portal in the West African country reported this week.

Ghana Business News cited the government’s Auditor-General’s Report for 2018 as saying the National Communications Authority, Ghana’s telecommunications regulator, had spent $4 million to buy Pegaus hardware from a local representative of the Israeli company, called Infralocks Development Limited.

The portal cited reports saying that the hardware was delivered without documentation, but not the software. The auditor general said the system was acquired at the behest of the National Security Council, thus arousing concerns it could be used for eavesdropping on citizens.

“Given the documented use of NSO Group technology against journalists, any intention to acquire Pegasus spyware or similar surveillance systems is cause for concern,” Angela Quintal, the Africa coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists, told Ghana Business News.

“Ghanaian authorities’ failure to adequately prioritize press freedom and ensure accountability for attacks against journalists make these concerns all the more justified,” she said.

Based in Herzliya, NSO is perhaps the biggest and best-known of a handful of Israeli companies that specialize in creating tools that allow governments to spy electronically. Its flagship Pegasus 3 system for hacking mobile phones is so sophisticated that it does not even require the target to click on a link to open the device to eavesdropping.

The company’s technology has been repeatedly implicated in abuses by its customers – governments that have allegedly used it to target journalists in Mexico, opposition figures in Panama and human rights activists in the Middle East. NSO software may have been used to hack Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s cellphone before he was killed, allegedly at the hands of Saudi authorities.

Ghana is deemed as a “free” country on a global index compiled by the nongovernmental organization Freedom House, scoring 83 out of 100 in its 2019 report.

“Although the country has a relatively strong record of upholding civil liberties … There are some weaknesses in judicial independence and the rule of law, and political corruption presents challenges to government performance,” Freedom House said.

Last month, David Kaye, the United Nations special rapporteur on freedom of expression, cited NSO in his proposal to impose a moratorium on the use of surveillance technology. His report called Pegasus spyware a “paradigmatic example” of private surveillance products and their mobile device hacking capabilities.

NSO said in response to the report that it doesn’t comment on individual customers.