Early this week news broke about how many individuals have been violated by their governments using Israeli tech company, NSO’s Pegasus software. An investigative journalism collaboration coordinated by the non-profit news organisation, Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International looked at a leaked data of 50,000 phone numbers from 50 countries around the world. These are largely targeted by governments, and they include journalists, human rights activists and some heads of state.
NSO has rubbished the reports and indicated that it doesn’t have an idea who its clients use the software on. It argues further that the product it sells to government clients – most commonly referred to as Pegasus – is intended to “collect data from the mobile devices of specific individuals, suspected to be involved in serious crime and terror.”
According to Forbidden Stories, Pegasus has extensive capabilities: the spyware can be installed remotely on a smartphone without requiring any action from its owner. Once installed, it allows clients to take complete control of the device, including accessing messages from encrypted messaging apps like WhatsApp and Signal, and turning on the microphone and camera.
The Forbidden Stories collaboration known as The Pegasus Project notes that contrary to what NSO Group has claimed for many years, including in a recent transparency report, the spyware has been widely misused. The leaked data showed that at least 180 journalists have been selected as targets in countries like India, Mexico, Hungary, Morocco, Togo, Rwanda and France, among others. Potential targets also include human rights defenders, academics, businesspeople, lawyers, doctors, union leaders, diplomats, politicians and several heads of state.
During the investigation, the project team met with victims from all over the world whose phone numbers appeared in the data. The forensic analyses of their phones – conducted by Amnesty International’s Security Lab and peer-reviewed by the Canadian organization Citizen Lab – was able to confirm an infection or attempted infection with NSO Group’s spyware in 85 per cent of cases, or 37 in total.
The clients of NSO 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.
In Togo, two critical journalists, Carlos Ketohuo, publisher and editor of the newspaper L’Indépendant Express and publisher, editor of the investigative newspaper L’Alternative, Ferdinand Ayite have been targeted. The two have been persecuted persistently by the Togolese government. Ketohuo was arrested and detained in January 2021. But he escaped and fled the country. His newspaper has been banned. Ayite and his newspaper were put on trial for defamation and found guilty in November 2020 and fined a total CFA4 million. His newspaper has also been suspended multiple times.
While the governments justify the acquisition of the Pegasus software to fight terrorism, in actual fact they use it on innocent citizens like journalists and human rights defenders serving the bigger public interest.
Ghana is a customer of NSO
Ghana is a customer of the NSO Group. The country purchased the Pegasus machine in 2016 with the same justification – to fight terrorism. However, by some unexplained circumstances, the country didn’t get the software. It is therefore unclear if the country even tested the software, and if it did, on who.
The purchase of the Pegasus machine became a subject of a court case soon after there was change in government after the 2016 elections. Some officials of the National Communications Authority and National Security who were involved in the deal – in which they made a payment of $4 million to NSO were found guilty and sentenced to various jail terms.
It is still unclear what has become of the Pegasus machine in the country.
Ghana has another Israel produced hacking tech
In 2019, the UK and US governments and Interpol jointly procured and delivered to the Ghana government, another Israeli tech company’s product used for hacking.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) Ghanaian security officials have confirmed to it that the US and UK governments, as well as Interpol, did provide Ghana’s security forces with digital investigations training and technology. Maame Yaa Tiwaa Addo-Danquah, a senior Ghana Police official told CPJ that tools made by the Israel-based Cellebrite corporation – whose website says their technology can break locks and encryption – and two US-based companies, IBM and Digital Intelligence have been provided to the country.
The CPJ has documented the use of Cellebrite’s Universal Forensic Extraction Device (UFED) by Nigerian security forces, as well as how the military targeted journalists’ phones and computers with a “forensic search” trying to reveal their sources.
By Emmanuel K. Dogbevi
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