Who is behind Pegasus spyware? Bug spied on Royals, NYT, CNN journos and heads of state

Overall, more than 50,000 phone numbers have been spied on by clients of NSO, using the software


                            Who is behind Pegasus spyware? Bug spied on Royals, NYT, CNN journos and heads of state
Pegasus spied on over 50,000 phone numbers (Representational Photo, Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Noted politicians, journalists, and activists around the world have been alerted about the existence of a cellphone malware called Pegasus, which has reportedly been spying on them. Developed by a private Israeli firm NSO Group, the malware has affected leading influential personalities, including the members of the royal families in different countries. It was also found on the phone of Hanan Elatr, the wife of slain journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Overall, more than 50,000 phone numbers have been spied on by clients of NSO, using the software. 

The shocking details about the malware emerged after journalists from multiple outlets including Washington Post, The Guardian, Le Monde, and others collaborated on a data leak investigation. The outlets confirmed the existence of the spyware and assured that they would soon be releasing further details about "those who were compromised". The media organizations infiltrated by Pegasus were aplenty — The New York Times, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, Associated Press, The Economist, Reuters, Voice of America, Radio Free Europe, France 24, El Pais, Le Monde, etc. 

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According to Washington Post, some of the numbers in the list 50,000 belonged to prime ministers, heads of state, diplomats, top politicians, and even members of Arab royal families. Activists and business executives were also targeted by NSO's clients. Though the clients were not identified, it was found that they were spread across an expanse of 10 countries — Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, India, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

The NSO has used the spyware on client demand since 2016, despite insisting that it was intended for use against criminals and terrorists. The Guardian reported that the data leak investigation revealed "widespread and continuing abuse of Pegasus".

In June 2020, Amnesty International reported that Moroccan leaders used the Pegasus spyware on journalist Omar Radi's phone, who was convicted over a social media post. In December 2020, Citizen Lab reported how journalists in Qatar's Al-Jazeera network were targeted by a similar malware that intercepted their phone communications. Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, who was allegedly murdered on the order of Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, was indirectly targeted by the spyware before his death. Pegasus reportedly tracked the phone of his wife Hanan Elatr and one of his female associates. Another Mexican journalist, who was murdered at a car wash, was also a possible target of Pegasus. Though his phone was never found, the list included his number as well. 

However, the firm NSO had earlier pledged to the police for abuses of its software, and they have called the allegations unfounded and exaggerated. The firm further refused to confirm the identities of its clients. 

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