The office of former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson was reportedly hit by multiple suspected spyware infections using Israeli NSO Group’s Pegasus software, according to a report by tech organization Citizen Lab. The suspected attacker was believed to be the UAE.
The Pegasus software gives governments access to the phones and laptops of activists and journalists, enabling operators to view messages, contacts, camera, microphone, and location history. Despite NSO Group claiming to have safeguards in place, critics argue that they are insufficient.
In 2020 and 2021, Citizen Lab observed and notified the UK government of the suspected spyware infections within official UK networks, including the Prime Minister’s office and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. However, researchers were unable to identify the specific individuals that had been hacked.
In November 2021, the NSO Group was blacklisted by the US for its activities, which went against national security interests. The company dismissed criticism from organizations like Citizen Lab as politically motivated and stated that it has cooperated with governmental investigations where credible allegations are present. They also denied any relation to the false allegations raised regarding the UK Prime Minister’s office.
The NSO Group Controversy
The NSO Group, an Israeli cyber intelligence company, has faced widespread controversy for the sale of its Pegasus spyware to governments around the world. Pegasus allows governments to remotely access the devices of journalists, human rights activists, and other individuals, collecting sensitive information from them.
Citizen Lab, the tech organization that released the report on the suspected spyware attack on the UK Prime Minister’s office, has been one of the groups at the forefront of exposing the global use of Pegasus. Citizen Lab has reported on the use of the software in countries such as Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Bahrain, and the United Arab Emirates, and has found evidence of Pegasus being used to target human rights defenders, journalists, and political opposition figures.
The NSO Group has faced lawsuits and legal challenges over its activities, with human rights organizations alleging that its products are used by governments to carry out serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings, torture, and arbitrary detention. In 2019, WhatsApp filed a lawsuit against the NSO Group, alleging that Pegasus was used to spy on approximately 1,400 WhatsApp users across four continents in a lawsuit filed in a federal court in San Francisco.
The US blacklisting of the NSO Group in November 2021 was a significant blow to the company, as the US is one of the largest markets for cyber intelligence products. The blacklisting means that the NSO Group is unable to do business with US companies, which could seriously impact its operations and future growth.
The Ethics of Selling Spyware
The use of spyware by governments raises serious ethical questions about the role of private companies in providing governments with the tools to carry out human rights violations. Critics argue that companies such as the NSO Group have a responsibility to ensure that their products are not used to carry out illegal activities, including human rights abuses.
Human rights organizations have called for stricter regulations on the sale of spyware, arguing that companies must be held accountable for the use of their products by governments. There have also been calls for increased transparency about the sale of spyware, as well as for greater scrutiny of the governments that use it.
However, supporters of the NSO Group argue that the company provides an important service to governments in the fight against terrorism and other security threats. They argue that the use of spyware is a necessary tool in the fight against these threats, and that companies such as the NSO Group should not be held responsible for the actions of governments that misuse their products.
The Future of Spyware
The controversy surrounding the NSO Group and other companies that sell spyware is unlikely to go away anytime soon. The use of spyware by governments is becoming increasingly common, and the technology is becoming more sophisticated and capable of collecting vast amounts of data from individuals.
In conclusion, the suspected spyware attack on the UK Prime Minister’s office is a stark reminder of the potential dangers posed by the sale of spyware to governments. The NSO Group and other companies that sell spyware must be held accountable for their role in providing governments with the tools to carry out human rights abuses, and the international community must take steps to regulate the sale of these products to ensure that they are not used to carry out illegal activities.