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Pegasus: Global media calls out NSO, seeks robust oversight of ‘unrestrained’ spyware industry

Several editorials across the world called out the NSO Group and its clients for using Pegasus spyware. They also called for greater transparency in private spyware industry.

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New Delhi: The editorials of several newspapers across the world condemned the revelations made by the Pegasus Project, an international media consortium, on the alleged surveillance of heads of states, political leaders, journalists, activists among others globally.

The newspapers termed the revelations as an attack on people’s privacy and fundamental rights. Some also made calls for more robust oversight of spyware.

According to reports published by the consortium of 17 media organisations since late Sunday, a spyware called Pegasus that was developed by Israeli cyber technology firm NSO Group was used to attempt to surveil several prominent individuals globally including serving heads of states.

The most recent revelation by the consortium noted that the phone numbers of 14 foreign leaders, including French President Emmanuel Macron, Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, were targetted using Pegasus.

Earlier, it was revealed that phones of India’s Union ministers, including Minister of Electronics and Information Technology Ashwini Vaishnaw, opposition leaders and 40 senior journalists and activists were also targetted.

Also read: List of Indian ministers, politicians, public figures ‘snooped on’ by Pegasus

Washington Post calls for transparency

Not many prominent newspapers in the US put out editorials on the revelations made by the Pegasus Project other than The Washington Post, which is part of the consortium.

In an editorial Tuesday, it called for robust transparency and accountability to contain the “largely unrestrained” private spyware industry.

It said: “…governments should also take the onus on themselves to assess the human rights impact of issuing a license before it’s approved — and, if it is approved, after.”

According to the project’s reports, one of the people indirectly targetted by NSO’s spyware was the newspaper’s columnist and Saudi critic Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered in 2018.

The Washington Post also said countries with a history of using such technologies against people should be prohibited from purchasing them. “Countries that respect the bounds of the law should refuse to buy from companies that do business with those that don’t.”

Other US newspapers like the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times have not put out their views.

However, four years ago, NYT had commented on the issue when it was revealed that an international team is investigating the disappearance of 43 students in Mexico who were allegedly being surveilled by the country’s government using Pegasus.

In an editorial, published on 11 July 2017, titled ‘Spyware That Governments Can’t Resist’, the newspaper had said: “The temptation for governments to misuse it [spyware] is intense, and the proscriptions of manufacturers like the NSO Group are obviously insufficient.”

Guardian backs Rahul Gandhi’s comments

UK newspaper The Guardian called NSO’s defence, that it does not operate the spyware systems it sells, “a self-serving argument”.

The newspaper also agreed with Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s comments on the issue Monday. Gandhi’s number was also targetted by Pegasus in the run-up to the 2019 General Election.

“Mr Gandhi called it ‘an attack on the democratic foundations of our country’. He’s right,” the editorial read.

On Monday, Financial Times called on Israel to suspend NSO’s export licence. It also noted that countries should apply the same oversight used for arms sales to technologies like spyware.

Israeli dailies target NSO

Two newspapers in Israel, Jerusalem Post and Haaretz, put out editorials criticising the NSO.

The Jerusalem Post Tuesday called Pegasus Project’s allegations “serious” and held NSO responsible for its product being “exploited for nefarious means”.

Meanwhile, in a piece titled ‘The Vile Exports of Startup Nation’, Haaretz said the allegations should have “shaken up” Israeli authorities long ago to “tighten supervision on the export of technological weapons”.

It added that NSO’s counterarguments are full of “feigned innocence” and urged Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gatz to order a probe into the operations of firms like NSO.

Also read: Pegasus list proves Rahul Gandhi’s undying importance

Pakistani newspapers call out India’s ‘paranoia’

After it was revealed that Pakistan PM Imran Khan was also targetted with Pegasus, Pakistani newspaper The News International urged the country “to substantially upgrade its cyber security infrastructure”.

It also credited the Pegasus Project for showcasing the “power of collaborative journalism”.

Another Pakistani daily, The Express Tribune, said: “Even if we ignore the hacking attempt on Imran, since India would regard him as a political leader in a rival country, the hacks of Indians clearly illustrate the authoritarian tendencies of the Modi government.”

It also called the revelation that the Modi government was spying on its own ministers as a combination of “authoritarianism” and “paranoia”.

Indian newspapers condemn govt response

Leading newspapers in India, meanwhile, focused on the Indian government’s response to the Pegasus reports. The government said the reports were “based on conjectures and exaggerations to malign the Indian democracy and its institutions”.

“Instead of coming clean and explaining what it intends to do to protect citizens, the GoI has fallen back on a disingenuous claim that no illegal surveillance is possible in India,” said The Hindu Wednesday.

It also noted that the information obtained illegally by the government may have been used to “steal” elections and “sabotage” opposition campaigns or governments.

The Indian Express called on IT Minister Vaishnaw, who had rubbished the list despite being named in it, to address the impression in India that “red lines have been breached”.

In an editorial Thursday, the paper said unlike earlier governments that “operated in grey zones of espionage”, this scandal is different because of the “scale” of the purported abuse of power and the current “political climate”.

The Times of India focused on the NSO and said the presence of such firms is as worrying as “rogue hackers”.

In a separate editorial, the newspaper said India’s data protection law, which is still under consideration, will have to provide a “legal shield from illegal intrusions” and empower victims of such cybercrimes.

If the Pegasus Project’s allegations about the Indian government are true, it is “a betrayal of the constitutional compact with citizens”, The Hindustan Times noted Tuesday.

(Edited by Rachel John)

Also read: Siddaramaiah alleges Modi govt used Pegasus to topple Karnataka’s Cong-JD(S) govt in 2019


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