Pegasus spyware: Is the NSO Group’s technology good or evil?
The whole Pegasus spyware fiasco sounds like a page from a popular American science fiction show – Person of Interest – where Artificial Intelligence (AI) software can be put to good or evil. It doesn’t necessarily make the AI good or evil but is reflective of the handlers who choose to deploy it for various motives. Developer of Pegasus software – the Israel-based NSO Group avows to have been ‘Developing technology to prevent and investigate terror and crime’. On the mission to ‘work to save lives and create a better, safer world’, NSO Group has developed state-of-art technology that can help government agencies detect and prevent terrorism and crime. However, the Pegasus technology is considered to have been used for spying on ministers and journalists amongst others.
Most well-known for Pegasus, NSO has a range of products, including those designed to augment data analytics capabilities by law enforcement and intelligence agencies, improve search and rescue efforts, implement effective counter-measures against incursions by drones. The company has a premier drone defence system – Eclipse – designed to automatically detect, take over and safely land unauthorized commercial drones in a designated zone. NSO’s VP Sales Michel Berdah had confirmed that Eclipse was already deployed in dozens of countries, helping security and enforcement forces save lives. And to add to the list is NSO’s Fleming, a program that used cell phone and public health data to identify where people with coronavirus are and who they come in contact with.
In news once again for spying, Pegasus can be delivered to the user’s mobile without their knowledge. It collects all personal information including calls, SMS, track user activity within apps, gather location data and even accesses video camera or listens through their microphones. Given the capability and seriousness of what this spyware is capable of, NSO Group licenses its products only to government intelligence and law enforcement agencies only after vetting them thoroughly. “Our Governance, Risk and Compliance Committee board reviews potential sales of NSO products, providing recommendations and decisions after an in-depth, risk-based due diligence process including a comprehensive assessment of potential human rights impacts, and is empowered to reject sales or request investigations into potential misuse,” says the company website. In simple terms, NSO does a background check before selling its technology.
NSO’s products, including Pegasus, are licensed, and as per the company has helped prevent terrorism, break up criminal operations, find missing persons, and assist search and rescue teams. According to Israel’s Y Net News where NSO’s CEO Shalev Hulio spoke for the first time about the mission behind the world’s most sophisticated spyware, Mexico which was one of the first few clients for Pegasus, used it to fight the drug cartels. However, the Mexico administration used it to track journalists and others who dared to criticise the government. This undermines NSO’s claims of Pegasus being used by states and state agencies around the world to collect data from the mobile devices of specific suspected major criminals. Clearing its role and stand, NSO has highlighted in the past as well that it does not operate this technology. “We license it only to the law enforcement and intelligence agencies of sovereign states. Nor do we have any knowledge of the individuals whom states might be investigating, nor the plots they are trying to disrupt, as is otherwise standard amongst our corporate peers. Sovereign states normally do not, will not and should not share this extraordinarily sensitive information,” the company had clarified in its first transparency report.
NSO has 60 customers in 40 countries using its products of which 38% are law enforcement entities, 51% are intelligence agencies and 11% are military. The group claims to be only powering the best-in-class tech which can be put to good use. But at the same time, the questions on its spyware being used for snooping on civilians is a matter of concern. There should be some fail-safe to put into place that would protect any misuse of the technology.