Pegasus, the powerful spyware created by NSO Group and sold to democracies and dictatorships across the globe, is testing the limits of civil liberties in the digital age. The controversy around this spyware, which can access a user’s camera and microphone, has spread throughout the world. Media reports say intelligence agencies use it not only to track real threats but also to squash dissenting opinions in undemocratic regimes.
The proliferation of spyware such as Pegasus introduces a fundamental question to our use of technology. With technology moving faster than our ability to control it and being available to autocrats who would abuse it, where is the line drawn between security and protecting our civil liberties?
This dilemma will become increasingly murky in democratic countries as we further buy into powerful technologies which have the ability to track us like never before. With many democracies slowly eroding we now find ourselves dealing with surveillance technology such as Pegasus in the hands of those looking to upend civic norms and to consolidate power.
For the responsible few in positions of power, it will be a fine line between securing our safety and maintaining boundaries around civil liberties.
How it works and why is it used
Pegasus has gone through variations over ten years; like all tech, newer versions improved upon previous generations. This spyware rose to notoriety after it was discovered that Saudi intelligence tortured and killed Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in their consulate in Turkey.
Saudi intelligence was able to track Khashoggi through Pegasus, which had been installed on his smartphone. As more information was revealed, it became clear this spyware is being used by governments all over the world.
This piece in Scientific American notes how Pegasus works: “Earlier versions of Pegasus were installed on smartphones through vulnerabilities in commonly used apps or by spear-phishing, which involves tricking a targeted user into clicking a link or opening a document that secretly installs the software. It can also be installed over a wireless transceiver located near a target, or manually if an agent can steal the target’s phone.”
But there have been upgrades in the spyware’s sophistication: “Since 2019, Pegasus users have been able to install the software on smartphones with a missed call on WhatsApp, and can even delete the record of the missed call, making it impossible for the phone’s owner to know anything is amiss.”
The line between security and civil liberties
Some countries under direct and tangible security threats understand there is a fine line between security and civil liberties. Israel has an unwritten agreement between security services such as Shin Bet (their version of the FBI) and the public, in that some civil liberties will be challenged as a result of the never-ending security challenge in dealing with terrorism.
While the public may not always like this arrangement, they generally believe the actions of Shin Bet are made with the public’s best interest in mind. This is why the recent controversy surrounding the alleged use of Pegasus by the Israeli police is so damning. That this trust would be violated in the name of political factors and not safeguarding values violates an agreement going back decades.
Where is the line that governments should not cross to protect us? While not related to national security but personal safety, this has played out in extreme political fashion across the United States regarding Covid-19 restrictions, masks, and vaccinations.
When technology turns against its owners
It is not surprising a tool like Pegasus would be abused, considering how powerful it is. When it falls into the hands of those with political agendas, it is hard to stop. As we hear so often now, with great power comes great responsibility, and even democracies with civic oversight are led by fallible people.
We live through our smartphones, and much of the services on these personal devices make us vulnerable as technology continues its perpetual trajectory of increasing power. Like cyber, it is not just in the hands of governments and security services but with state sponsored actors with resources to purchase the newest technologies.
The recent alleged abuse of Pegasus comes from a report in the Israeli business newspaper Calcalist, which reported that Israeli police used spyware to hack the phones of political figures to spy on them.
This Times of Israel article notes, however: “A senior police official told Channel 12 news on Friday that the allegations made against the force were “despicable.” The Calcalist report has also been described by some analysts as “libelous” against former police commissioners Roni Alsheich and Motti Cohen.” As this controversy unfolds, just the allegation that police used this spyware raised a major controversy in Israel, a country which understands the challenges of upholding civil liberties under threat.
This will continue to be a challenge for democracies, as technology becomes more advanced, accessible, and affordable. The challenge is for democracies not to slowly become like China, creating an Orwellian state around this tech. We need to be wary of going down this route and protect our civil liberties.