Court jails former Ghana officials who bought NSO’s Pegasus

An Accra High Court presided over by Justice Eric Kyei Baffour has found former government officials guilty of causing financial loss to the State and sentenced them to various prison terms, in the matter of purchasing the Pegasus hardware produced by the Israeli company, NSO.

The officials, are a former Director-General and former Board Chairman of the National Communications Authority (NCA), and a former National Security Coordinator.

The former Director-General of the NCA, William Tetteh Tevie was given a five-year jail term, Eugene Baffoe-Bonnie, the Board Chairman received a six-year sentence and Salifu Osman, a former National Security Coordinator got five years.

The fourth accused in the case, Nana Owusu Ensaw, a former Board member of the NCA filed an appeal and had a ruling in his favour leading to his discharge.

The fifth accused, George Derick Oppong, former Director of Infralocks Development Limited (IDL), the local rep of NSO was acquitted and discharged.

The court further ordered the Attorney-General to seize assets belonging to the convicted persons estimated to be worth $3 million.

The case has been in court since 2017.

The convicts were charged among others for stealing, using public office for personal gains, and willfully causing financial loss to the state in respect of the purchase of the Pegasus hardware worth $4 million, which they said was to be used to fight terrorism.

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

Curiously, the facts of the purchase weren’t known until the former officials of the NCA were put before court.

In a July 2019 interview, Angela Quintal, the Africa Coordinator for Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), told “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.”

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.

By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi

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