NSO Group, which produces controversial spyware that has been used to monitor many journalists and human rights activists, continues to refine its functionality to ensure its effectiveness and make it more difficult to detect.
Toronto’s Citizen Lab, a specialized research center that has been documenting the Israeli firm’s activities for years, says it has detected three new methods used in 2022 by Pegasus to “infect” cell phones and make their content accessible to system operators .
These methods allow the spyware to be installed remotely without any intervention from the owner of the device, who usually has no idea what is going on.
The designers of NSO Group are also trying “aggressively” to remove internal data that could testify to the infection of the targeted phones, notes in an interview one of the researchers responsible for the report, John Scott-Railton.
“Pegasus is going to become even harder to find on phones, which should be a worrying topic for all governments” concerned about the potential for abuse, he adds.
The Citizen Lab detected the new infection methods identified by working in collaboration with a specialized center in Mexico.
In particular, two senior members of a human rights center in the country had their devices infected last year. They were targeted while working on abuses attributed to the Mexican army, which is implicated in particular in the “disappearance” in 2015 of a group of about forty students.
One of the activists, Jorge Santiago Aguirre Espinosa, who heads the Mexican center, had previously been targeted in 2017 with the spyware.
Without drawing a definitive conclusion, the Citizen Lab notes that the activities of the affected activists and evidence of the military’s role in past espionage attempts with Pegasus suggest that the Mexican state played a role in the newly identified cases.
Mr. Scott-Railton notes that the research center has discovered almost every year since 2016 new cases of infection in the country.
Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador assured upon taking power in 2018 that “this type of practice will stop, but what [the research center] has found shows that the misuse of Pegasus continues”, notes the researcher.
The fact that NSO Group allows a “serial abuser” like Mexico to continue using its software demonstrates, he adds, that the firm does not care about human rights abuses that may occur through it. .
The Israeli company – which did not respond to La Presse’s interview request on Tuesday – maintains that Pegasus is a valuable tool for security forces to combat serious crime and terrorism.
France-Isabelle Langlois, who heads the French-Canadian section of Amnesty International, is not surprised to learn that the company continues to work to make its spyware even harder to detect.
“They never wanted to acknowledge that Pegasus was being used for any purpose other than what they officially name,” she notes.
This position seems untenable, notes Ms. Langlois, as reports multiply that journalists, human rights activists, trade unionists and politicians have been targeted with spyware in many countries.
The US government said in November 2021 that the Israeli firm would be blacklisted because of its practices. The European Parliament has set up a committee of inquiry to shed light on the use of Pegasus and other similar software.
In a joint statement made public at the end of March, a dozen countries, including Canada, indicated that strict controls must be introduced both at the national and international level to avoid abuses.
“It’s going to take a lot of willpower on the part of political leaders. However, this leadership is not assumed for the moment. If you ask a politician what he intends to do, he will say that it is important to act, but from there to making a gesture, there is a step,” underlines Ms. Langlois.
This ambivalence, she says, stems in part from the fact that security forces in many countries are reluctant to give up such powerful technology.
“Too many people think there are good reasons to have this type of system. It will not be easy to find a solution,” concludes Ms. Langlois.