Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International had access to a leak of more than 50,000 records of phone numbers that NSO clients selected for surveillance, revealing new details about the spyware used against slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
According to an analysis of these records by the group and its partners, more than 180 journalists were selected in 21 countries by at least 12 NSO clients. These government clients range from autocratic (Bahrain, Morocco and Saudi Arabia) to democratic (India and Mexico) and span the entire world, from Hungary and Azerbaijan in Europe to Togo and Rwanda in Africa. As the Pegasus Project will show, many of them have not been afraid to select journalists, human rights defenders, political opponents, businesspeople and even heads of state as targets of this invasive technology.
In NSO Group’s 2021 transparency report, one phrase appears three times: “save lives.” “Our goal,” the company writes at one point, “is to help states protect their citizens and save lives.” Yet the troubling use of NSO spyware against journalists and their family members, as identified in the Pegasus Project and in previous reports by digital rights NGOs, casts doubts on this narrative.
On October 2, 2018, around 1 pm, Khashoggi walked into the Saudi consulate in Turkey and never came back out. The brazen assassination of the dissident journalist initiated a wave of global responses, with world leaders, human rights groups and concerned citizens calling for an in-depth investigation into his murder – and the potential implication of NSO Group’s spyware in it.
A day before his murder, digital rights organization Citizen Lab reported that a close friend of Khashoggi, Omar Abdulaziz, had been targeted with NSO’s Pegasus in the months before Khashoggi’s murder.
NSO, for its part, has repeatedly said that it has access to a “kill switch” and that it has revoked access to clients when human rights are not respected. The company has categorically denied any involvement in Khashoggi's murder.
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But new revelations from Forbidden Stories and its partners have found that Pegasus spyware was successfully installed on the phone of Khashoggi’s fiancée Hatice Cengiz’s cell phone just four days after the murder. The phone of Khashoggi’s son, Abdullah, was selected as a target of an NSO client that appears to be the UAE government, based on the consortium's analysis of the leaked data, several weeks after the murder. Close friends, colleagues and family members of the murdered journalist were all selected as targets by NSO clients that appear to be the governments of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to the Pegasus Project revelations released today.
"As NSO has previously stated, our technology was not associated in any way with the heinous murder of Jamal Khashoggi," NSO Group wrote in its letter to Forbidden Stories. "We can confirm that our technology was not used to listen, monitor, track or collect information regarding him or his family members mentioned in your inquiry."
Khashoggi’s death, and the spyware lingering on the margins of it, security experts say, was not necessarily a unique case.
"[Khashoggi is] certainly not the first journalist to have been killed by an angry government. And he's not the first journalist to have been killed by an angry government for his journalism with some element of malware and surveillance involved,” says Eva Galperin, the director of cybersecurity at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF). “These are things that very frequently go together.”
Meanwhile, in Mexico
On March 2, 2017, local Mexican journalist Cecilio Pineda took out his phone and recorded his final broadcast. In it, the reporter from the city of Altamirano, who ran a Facebook with more than 50,000 followers, spoke about alleged collusion between state and local police and the leader of a drug cartel.
Two hours later, he was dead – shot at least six times by two men on a motorcycle as he lay in a hammock outside of a car wash.
When Pineda was assassinated in 2017, at the age of 38, the world blinked and moved on. His death was seen as just another reporter killed in Mexico – the deadliest non-conflict zone in the world to be a journalist. But Pineda’s death may have been more than a drive-by job by a local cartel, according to the records accessed by Forbidden Stories and its partners.
Just a few weeks before he was killed, Pineda’s work cell phone was selected as a target of an NSO client in Mexico.
Forbidden Stories has been able to confirm that not just Pineda, but also the state prosecutor who investigated the case, Xavier Olea Pelaez, were selected as targets of Pegasus in the weeks and months before his murder. Forbidden Stories was unable to analyze Pineda’s phone because it disappeared immediately after his death. Pelaez did not keep his phone from the time, so it was not possible to confirm an infection by Pegasus. Pineda’s reporting, however, gives traces as to why Pineda’s work could have troubled Mexican authorities who may have had access to this technology.
At the time of his selection, Pineda was investigating links between the local crime boss, known as El Tequilero, and the governor of the state of Guerrero, Hector Astudillo. Friends and family who spoke with Forbidden Stories and its partners said that Pineda had received threats and had asked to be placed in a federal mechanism for the protection of journalists.
“Cecilio received many serious threats but he would play them down,” Israel Flores, a friend of Pineda’s, said in a recent interview. “He’d always say ‘nothing will happen.’”
As Pineda continued to report on the nexus of local politicians and drug traffickers, the threats came ever closer to him. A few days before his death, men in a white car took photos of his home, his mother said. The day he was killed, he stopped by his mother’s house before meeting a friend at a political rally. That was the last time she saw him.
“He told me ‘the bad guys aren’t going to kill me, they know me, they’re my friends. If they kill me it will be the government,” her mother said in an interview.
Pineda’s wife, Marisol Toledo, told a member of the Forbidden Stories consortium that the day after Pineda’s death she received a call from a government employee who told her he was investigating the murder. He never followed up.
“We don’t know what happened in the investigation,” Toledo said. “We don’t want trouble. People with power can do what they want, to who they want.”
Pineda’s phone was also never found – as it had disappeared from the crime scene by the time the authorities had arrived. But when told about the possible role of spyware in tracking Pineda’s movements, Toledo was not surprised.
“If they succeeded, they would have known where he was at all times,” she said.