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Why did the NCA in Ghana acquire Israeli company NSO’s Pegasus?

There is something ominous about the entire transaction. It’s a chilling reality, but Ghanaians are oblivious of it. And not many Ghanaian journalists have ever heard of Pegasus or the company that sells that product, Israeli company, NSO. But the National Communications Authority (NCA), the Ghana government regulator of telecommunications has actually bought Pegasus! But for what?

The Auditor-General’s Report for 2018 says, the NCA bought the equipment at the request of National Security. From court reports, the machine was delivered, but the software wasn’t.

This is frightening in many ways, including, because of documented incidents of what Pegasus has been used for in other parts of the world, and Ghana is a democracy – which requires transparency. But the subtle and quiet purchase of the product leaves much to be desired.

Strikingly, the facts of the purchase weren’t known until former officials of the NCA were put before court to answer for their stewardship, and in spite of that, not many Ghanaians are aware of the fact that the NCA, and to a greater effect, the government could have deployed Pegasus in the country.

“Given the documented use of NSO Group technology against journalists, any intention to acquire Pegasus spyware or similar surveillance systems is cause for concern.

“Ghanaian authorities’ failure to adequately prioritise press freedom and ensure accountability for attacks against journalists make these concerns all the more justified,” Angela Quintal, the Africa Coordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told ghanabusinessnews.com.

Kwami Ahiabenu II, the former Executive Director of PenPlusBytes, a media and technology NGO noted that some of the reasons for the purchase could be for intelligence gathering, but speculatively, to possibly spy on political opponents, critics and journalists.

What is the Pegasus software?

Some five years ago, tech researchers at Citizen Lab, a group focused on the intersection of technology and information security found that a malware called Pegasus, which was bought from an Israeli company called NSO Group, was used to target journalists and activists in some cases.

According to Citizen Lab, Pegasus is able to jailbreak devices and spy on victims. It is described as the most sophisticated attack seen on any endpoint because it takes advantage of how integrated mobile devices are in people’s lives and the combination of features only available on mobile such as always connected (Wi-Fi, 3G/4G), voice communications, camera, email, messaging, GPS, passwords, and contact lists.

When NSO scaled up its operations, the number of Pegasus servers that Citizen Lab detected in its scans grew from about 200 in 2016 to almost 600 in 2018. Most of the countries using them were Middle Eastern and Gulf countries. They were using them to track dissidents. One of the dissidents that was targeted by the spyware was UAE activist Ahmed Mansoor. He was targeted in 2016. There was an Amnesty International staffer and Saudi activist who was also targeted in June 2018.

Researchers concluded that the global proliferation of Pegasus paints a bleak picture of human-rights risks.

Pegasus and the murder of Jamal Khashoggi

On October 2, 2018, Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist critical of the Saudi royals was brutally murdered and his body dismembered in the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, where he had gone to obtain papers to allow him to marry.

A six-month investigation, and a 100-page report by the UN special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions, Agnes Callamard, accused Saudi Arabia of a “deliberate, premeditated execution”.

In December 2018, however, a Saudi dissident close to murdered Khashoggi, Omar Abdulaziz filed a lawsuit claiming that an Israeli software company helped the Saudi authorities to take over his smartphone and spy on his communications with Khashoggi.

A report by The Jerusalem Post citing the New York Times, indicated that Israeli software company NSO Group designed and sold software to the Saudi government that directly led to the death of Jamal Khashoggi.

In the lawsuit filed by Abdulaziz, he said his WhatsApp messages with Khashoggi were intercepted by the government and used to justify Khashoggi’s killing.

In messages obtained by CNN, Khashoggi called Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman a “beast” who eats his victims and oppresses citizens, the report said.

The report stated further that, Israel considers the “Pegasus” spyware a weapon and requires NSO Group to obtain approval from the Defense Ministry to sell it. Saudi Arabia spent $55 million on the software in 2017.

According to court reports, the NCA paid $4 million for what it says is cyber security equipment, which it bought through an apparent local representative of NSO, known as Infralocks Development Limited.

The 2018 Auditor-General’s report says the NCA paid $4 million to Infralocks Development Limited for the supply of cyber security equipment not supported with requisite documentation. The report indicated that the bank transfer correspondence between the NCA and Ecobank GH Ltd dated February 9, 2016 requested the transfer of sums totalling $4,000,000.00 from NCA’s dollar account to Infralocks Development Limited’s Account held at the Ecobank Head Office for the supply of cyber security equipment.

“However, there was no documentation to provide details of the transaction apart from the official correspondence effecting the transfer,” it added.

The alarming notoriety of Pegasus, compelled David Kaye, the US special rapporteur on freedom of expression to call on the world to impose a moratorium on the sale and use of surveillance software until there are rules in place to stop governments from using it to spy on opponents and critics.

In view of the international reactions to Pegasus, it is fair to ask, what exactly, did Ghana need Pegasus for?

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

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