A probe by a consortium of news organizations, overseen by Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, reported on Sunday that a private Israeli firm, NSO Group, licensed military-grade spyware to several foreign government groups known to engage in surveillance of their own citizens.
NSO Group’s spyware has been used to facilitate human rights violations around the world on a massive scale, according to a major investigation into the leak of 50,000 phone numbers of potential surveillance targets. These include heads of state, activists and journalists, including Jamal Khashoggi’s family.
A total of N4.8 (4,870,350,000) billion has been allocated to Nigeria’s National Intelligence Agency, NIA to monitor WhatsApp messages, phone calls, text messages, among others.
Of the figure, N1.93 billion was earmarked for “WhatsApp Intercept Solution” and N2.93 billion for “Thuraya Interception Solution” – a communications system used for monitoring voice calls or call-related information, SMS, data traffic, among others.
This was contained in the supplementary budget approved by the National Assembly last Wednesday.
The Forbidden Stories consortium and Amnesty International had access to records of phone numbers selected by NSO clients in more than 50 countries since 2016,” as per the report which identifies journalists, human rights activists, politicians, and businesspeople, among others, as targets of surveillance
From the leaked data and their investigations, Forbidden Stories and its media partners identified potential NSO clients in 11 countries: Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, Togo, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
Journalists under attack
The investigation has so far identified at least 180 journalists in 20 countries who were selected for potential targeting with NSO spyware between 2016 to June 2021, including in Azerbaijan, Hungary, India and Morocco, countries where crackdowns against independent media have intensified.
The revelations show the real-world harm caused by unlawful surveillance:
- In Mexico, journalist Cecilio Pineda’s phone was selected for targeting just weeks before his killing in 2017. The Pegasus Project identified at least 25 Mexican journalists were selected for targeting over a two-year period. NSO has denied that even if Pineda’s phone had been targeted, data collected from his phone contributed to his death.
- Pegasus has been used in Azerbaijan, a country where only a few independent media outlets remain. More than 40 Azerbaijani journalists were selected as potential targets according to the investigation. Amnesty International’s Security Lab found the phone of Sevinc Vaqifqizi, a freelance journalist for independent media outlet Meydan TV, was infected over a two-year period until May 2021.
- In India, at least 40 journalists from nearly every major media outlet in the country were selected as potential targets between 2017-2021. Forensic tests revealed the phones of Siddharth Varadarajan and MK Venu, co-founders of independent online outlet The Wire, were infected with Pegasus spyware as recently as June 2021.
- The investigation also identified journalists working for major international media including the Associated Press, CNN, The New York Times and Reuters as potential targets. One of the highest profile journalists was Roula Khalaf, the editor of the Financial Times.
“The number of journalists identified as targets vividly illustrates how Pegasus is used as a tool to intimidate critical media. It is about controlling public narrative, resisting scrutiny, and suppressing any dissenting voice,” said AgnèsCallamard.
Forbidden Stories, a Paris-based journalism nonprofit, and Amnesty International had access to a list of phone numbers concentrated in countries known to surveil their citizens and also known to have been clients of NSO Group – They shared the information with The Guardian, Le Monde, The Washington Post, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Die Zeit, Aristegui Noticias, Radio France, Proceso, OCCRP, Knack, Le Soir, Haaretz/TheMarker, The Wire, Daraj, Direkt36, PBS Frontline — Washington Post