Pegasus

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By SERGIO AMADEU DA SILVEIRA*

Israeli spyware found on mobile phones of human rights activists, journalists and officials

Philosopher Gilbert Simondon presented the concept of technical alienation to show the great constant mistake in refusing to see technology as an expression of culture. It is difficult to find a society that does not create, invent and adopt technical objects in its daily life. Techniques and technologies are part of our social existence and denying that they are crucial elements in structuring collective life is part of this alienation. Milton Santos taught us that “the main form of relationship between man and nature, or rather, between man and the environment, is given by technique”, but he also found that most of the time this premise was disregarded.

Capitalism, in its neoliberal phase, also feeds on technical alienation to reproduce and expand new forms of value extraction. Technologies are presented as neutral, merely “technical”, far from social, political, economic and ideological constraints. Technologies are often naturalized and exposed as immutable, definitive. Marketing displays technical objects as true “magic tricks”, beneficial and far from the complex business decision networks that produced it.

Corporations portray technologies as devoid of any possibilities of harboring vested, environmentally and socially harmful interests. Technology development companies show themselves as incapable of bringing interests that go beyond improving the experience of their consumers or users. “Do not be evil” was the motto of Google that was replaced by “do the right thing”, whatever that should be considered right.

From time to time, technologies or technological processes cause astonishment. Occasionally, a report shows that a certain technology can have side effects or harm. At certain times, like now, a company and its technological product is exposed as something harmful to society. Even so, the alienation is reinforced, as the case is presented as an outlier, as an exception. These opening paragraphs are important to draw attention to the widespread and dangerous practice of massive data collection practiced by unsuspecting corporations that blur and obscure other practices that are more harmful to democracies and human rights.

In addition to a huge market for personal data, widely accepted and which currently obtains the largest share of spending on advertising and advertising on the planet, there is also a billionaire market for espionage and illegitimate and illegal data acquisition. Who doesn't remember Edward Snowden? The former agent of the US intelligence apparatus demonstrated that the National Security Agency, NSA, spied on ordinary citizens and authorities based on their use of social networks, email from companies like Microsoft, Google, among others, which are currently part of the daily life of our societies. Snowden's spectacular denunciations generated a huge wave of fleeting outrage.

Recently, the newspaper The Guardian published the leak of information from a company that integrates the billionaire data market of industrial and political espionage. The NSO Group, an Israeli cyberwarfare company that develops and sells spy software called Pegasus, had 50.000 phone numbers of its targets given out to the press. Why would a spy company guard its targets? As Nicholas Weaver explained, to monitor who is spying and to know everything the spy has obtained from the spied on. It is important to note that Israeli spy companies are monitored and controlled by Israeli intelligence.

Cyberwarfare and espionage corporations often present themselves as digital security or information security companies. NSO Group has sold access to its mobile intrusion and data capture devices to governments and corporations in approximately 40 countries. Pegasus spy software was found on the cell phones of human rights activists, journalists and authorities. The assassination of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi and Mexican journalists may be linked to the acquisition of information from Pegasus, as spyware or spyware was found on the victims' cell phones.

The information released in July of that year was rigorously checked, as the independent journalism group Forbidden Stories and Amnesty International asked the Citizen Lab, at the University of Toronto, for a forensic analysis of Pegasus with independent peer review. The analysis found that the NSO Group's spying practices are extremely dangerous for democracies and for individual rights and guarantees.

For now, we know that dictators, security forces and certain businessmen are big customers of this spy market. James Bamford, an investigative journalist, wrote for the Foreign Policy, in 2016, on the economics of espionage. In the article, Bamford reports that Ricardo Martinelli, former president of Panama, used and abused illegal spying on opposition leaders, journalists, judges, business rivals, among 150 targets, thanks to what he called the “booming business of private companies that sell spyware military grade”. Already in 2011, the Wall Street Journal estimated the retail market for surveillance and espionage tools at $5 billion.

Israel is considered the paradise of these companies. Amitai Ziv, in an article written for the newspaper Haaretz, in January 2019, clarified that Israel has the renowned 8200 intelligence unit of the country's Defense Forces. This service is a source of recruiting top-notch operators and hackers for spy companies. It is estimated that these former agents of unit 8200 now receive at least 80 shekels a month, which is equivalent to 21 US dollars. In the same text, Ziv warned about a new cyberattack company: “Candiru, which owes its name to an Amazonian fish known to parasitize the human urethra, recruits heavily from unit 8200 and sells offensive tools to hack computer systems.”

The company called Candiru was also analyzed by the Citizen Lab. It is a secret company that obviously has the protection of the defense authorities. According to the investigation, the company Candiru also exploits faults in cell phones with its spyware. along with the Microsoft Threat Intelligence Center (MSTIC), the Citizen Lab found at least 100 victims in Palestine, Israel, Iran, Lebanon, Yemen, Spain, United Kingdom, Turkey, Armenia and Singapore. More than 750 sites linked to Candiru's spying infrastructure were detected, some impersonating civil society organizations and media outlets.

We have a legal data extraction market that lives alongside an espionage market that completely violates data protection laws. The former watches over people with commercial and marketing interests, the latter spies for industrial, geopolitical and military advantage. The problem is that governments, including the US, use both markets to maintain their geostrategic positions. There is a flow of data between one market and another. As Snowden has shown us, there is a marriage between the figures and structures of these markets.

In addition, there is still a dispute between bureaucratic groups, which also encourage the blurring of boundaries between the two markets for intrusion and data capture technologies. Carlos Bolsonaro, the president's councilor son, wanted to remove the possible acquisition of the Pegasus spyware from the control of the Brazilian Armed Forces and ABIN. He arranged for the Ministry of Justice, considered to be more aligned with his family's interests, to launch a tender for the purchase of the device. The alert for the operation probably came from military personnel dissatisfied with what they considered a bureaucratic distortion.

What would be Carlos Bolsonaro's objective with the acquisition of Pegasus? Once the scandal was established, the NSO Group said it would not participate in the bidding process. But another spy company will win the bid and will deliver a cell phone and email contagion device to the Bolsonaro government. Interestingly, we do not have a comprehensive survey of how many spyware are in operation in the country, acquired with public money by the federal and state governments.

Finally, technical alienation appears once again when we consider normal or natural the processes and preponderant business models of digital technologies, widely used for the collection and processing of our data, legally and illegally. The name Candiru of the Amazonian fish could not better express what companies in both markets do when accumulating sensitive data about our lives. But, this resembles a Netflix movie script. It does not generate indignation. It seems that the processes are like that because there would be no other way, other ways of experiencing technologies. Don't surrender. Nothing about digital technologies inevitably leads to pervasive surveillance and espionage. We need to break with technical alienation.

*Sergio Amadeu da Silveira is a professor at the Federal University of ABC. Author, among other books, of Free software – the fight for the freedom of knowledge (Conrad).

References


BAMFORD, James. The Espionage Economy. US firms are making billions selling spyware to dictators. Foreign Policy, january,22,2016. Available: https://foreignpolicy.com/2016/01/22/the-espionage-economy/

MARCZAK, Bill and others. Hooking Candiru. Another Mercenary Spyware Vendor Comes into Focus. Citizen Lab, July 15, 2021. Link: https://citizenlab.ca/2021/07/hooking-candiru-another-mercenary-spyware-vendor-comes-into-focus/

MARCZAK, Bill and others. Independent Peer Review of Amnesty International's Forensic Methods for Identifying Pegasus Spyware. Citizen Lab, July 18, 2021. Link: https://citizenlab.ca/2021/07/amnesty-peer-review/

SANTOS, Milton. The nature of space: technique and time, reason and emotion. Edusp, 2002.

SIMONDON, Gilbert. On the mode of existence of technical objects. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 2020.

ZIV, Amitai. Top secret israeli cyberattack firm, revealed. Haaretz, Jan. 4, 2019. Link: https://www.haaretz.com/middle-east-news/.premium-top-secret-israeli-cyberattack-firm-revealed-1.6805950

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