IT’S 1984 all over again. No, this is no blast from the past. It is George Orwell’s Big Brother-Is-Watching-You kind. If you thought Facebook was scary, think again. Israel’s spyware company, NSO Group Technologies, is many times more. It develops spyware and peddles them to governments and others.
According to one account, NSO Group’s spyware has been spotted in 45 countries. Welcome to dystopia, where privacy is a dead word. One reading of Orwell’s 1984 is a prediction of what could be. Now it is clear, that it is.
This is how the deadly malware, dubbed Pegasus, works. It sends a link either through short message service or WhatsApp to a target device. Once the link is clicked, Pegasus installs its surveillance software in the mobile device.
At this stage, the surrender is total. It can read the target’s messages, mail, listen to calls, turn on the camera, microphone and do many other malicious things. All without the target knowing.
We would not have known this if not for two things. One, Facebook’s suit against NSO Group filed in the United States on Oct 30 alleging the intrusion by the Israeli company. This follows a Pegasus cyberattack on a Facebook-owned WhatsApp video-calling feature in May.
This is how the attack happens. A video call is made to the target’s phone. After the phone rings, Pegasus secretly infects the phone. Even without the phone being answered. WhatsApp spent months tracing the attack to NSO Group. Hence the suit.
Two, thanks to a report made public by the Citizen Lab, a research group of Canada’s University of Toronto, we now know that we are living in dangerous times. Not very different from Winston Smith’s in Orwell’s Oceania.
This is what former Central Intelligence Agency agent Edward Snowden tried to warn us of in his book, Permanent Record. His exposé has cost him and his wife a life of exile in Russia. And his family, untold misery. It seems the land of opportunity isn’t really a land of privacy.
The Citizen Lab’s report also reveals a disturbing pattern. Much of the intrusion is aimed at lawyers, journalists, human rights activists, opposition politicians and anti-corruption advocates. An op-ed piece by WhatsApp head Will Cathcart for The Washington Post lends support to this. There, he reveals how NSO Group’s Pegasus hunted down at least 100 of such professionals across the world.
Pegasus and similar malware should act as a wake-up call, says Cathcart. “Tools that enable surveillance into our private lives are being abused, and the proliferation of this technology into the hands of irresponsible companies and governments puts us all at risk.”
We agree. While we welcome technology, it should not be at the expense of our privacy. There is another danger. If companies such as NSO Group are allowed to target journalists and other advocates, then we must be ready to bury free speech and other democratic values.
Facebook’s case against NSO Group will be a test case. We hope the US laws turn Pegasus into the myth it is. Otherwise, the digital lights, bells and whistles will turn into daggers.