The Pegasus Project |

How Israeli Spy-tech Became Dictators' Weapon of Choice

The despot’s discretion cannot be trusted - and cyberweapons provide exactly what they need to stifle democracy | Analysis

Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is one of NSO's clients
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman is one of NSO's clients that used the Pegasus software to spy on journalistsCredit: How Hwee Young / POOL European P
Amitai Ziv
Amitai Ziv

U.S. blacklists Israeli cyberarms firms NSO, Candiru for harming 'national security and interests'

Israel is a longtime weapon exporter to numerous states, some of which frequently violate human rights. Israeli weapons have been used by despotic regimes and, shamefully, even in cases of genocide.

The seriousness of this cannot be underestimated, but in certain senses and cases, cyberweapons can be even more problematic than firearms. Why? Let’s think for a moment from the point of view of a dictator in a certain state.

The Pegasus Project is a collaborative investigation that involves 17 media organizations in 10 countries coordinated by Forbidden Stories with support of Amnesty International’s Security LabCredit: Forbidden Stories

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Until a few years ago if an opposition or uprising had been organized against him he would have crushed it by force, using guns and tanks. But today everyone has smart phones and social media and the optics of shooting demonstrators look terrible. The events of Tiananmen Square in the previous millennium cannot repeat themselves in the 2000s.

But there’s no need for it, either, precisely because of those phones. Cyberwarfare is invisible, the news agencies don’t photograph it and sometimes the victims themselves don’t know what they’re facing and whom they must protect themselves from or beware of. Many different uses can be made with it that are not known even to the manufacturer, (in this case NSO, which doesn’t know who the targets are).

The Pegasus Project >> The Israeli cyber weapon used against 180 journalistsKhashoggi’s fiancee, son targeted by NSO tech, investigation revealsHow NSO's Pegasus is used to spy on journalistsIsrael's NSO and Pegasus Are a Danger to Democracy Around the World

Cyber weapons can be duplicated or stolen, because after all, they are software. Ultimately, cyberweapons are deniable and it’s extremely difficult to prove their existence and use, so the despot can claim innocence.

But the moment cyberwarfare is in the picture, it has a chilling effect on democracy. Opposition activists are afraid in advance to communicate among themselves. Sources are afraid to be in contact with journalists. The demonstration won’t even be held, it will be monitored and silenced well before anyone steps out onto the street. A critical new article won’t be written at all because nobody will be in contact with the reporter. In this sense, cyberattacks are an almost perfect version of Orwell’s all-knowing dystopian Big Brother in Nineteen Eighty-Four.

This is exactly what the reporters taking part in the Pegasus Project, a comprehensive investigative project about the use of NSO products against journalists around the world, said: “I feel guilty for the sources who sent me information believing the messages were coded and safe, unaware that my phone had been hacked,” a journalist from Azerbaijan said.

Source: Defense Ministry Credit: Haaretz

“Everyone will think we’re toxic, that we’re a burden,” a journalist from India said.

The despot’s discretion cannot be trusted. They are self-delusional and view journalists who do their job as traitors. For this reason it’s important to sell cyberwarfare only to full democracies, assuming they’ll be careful in using this powerful tool.

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