The Financial Express

Spying tools a threat to privacy

| Updated: July 27, 2021 21:48:16

Spying tools a threat to privacy

The spyware, Pegasus, made by an Israeli cyber security company, NSO Group, has recently hit headlines. However, this sophisticated malware (malicious software) has been around for several years prying surreptitiously into the iPhones and other electronic devices owned by people of interest to the hackers and reading and stealing sensitive data and information from those devices. The big IT giants  like Google, Facebook, and iphone maker Apple all knew about Pegasus. Apple did patch some security loopholes in its iOS (Operating System of iPhone, iPad and other mobile devices of Apple) in 2016 after getting complaints from their users. Apple then   released an updated version of its cell phone. It was later found that Pegasus can also infect Android smartphones. The spyware was also found infecting Facebook's system, for which the social media platform sued Pegasus' creator, NSO Group. But these incidents could not then create much media splash. However, recently reports based on researches conducted by the Human Rights organisation, Amnesty International, Canada's University of Toronto-based research group, Citizen Lab, the Paris-based non-profit journalists' group, Forbidden Stories, as well as news media organisations including Washington Post and Guardian found how this malware has been used to surveil hundreds of people globally. The spyware infected the targets who used iPhone, the Apple-made mobile phone. Among the targets where journalists, human rights activists and politicians including very high-profile ones such as the French President Emmanuel Macron! Today it is French president. But who knows tomorrow it won't be presidents, prime ministers and important international personalities of other countries? Small wonder that the Pegasus scam is now a big news!

That apart, the next question that arises is who are the users of this notorious spyware? Reports say, among the clients of the Israeli spyware-maker NSO Group are the governments of India, Hungary and Rwanda. While these governments have not denied outright the reports that they possess Pegasus, they, however, denied having used this cyber weapon to snoop into the cell phones of journalists, rights activists or politicians. Then what other purposes this ultimate cyber weapon-for-surveillance so far might have been used for? The plausible answers may be for national and public security and the maker of the spyware also claims as such regarding the purpose of this surveillance tool. But, of late, the very concept of public or national security has come under intense public scrutiny. For political governments often want to mix up the issue of individual privacy with public or even national security. The dangers of such extremely powerful surveillance spywares lie exactly here. Worse, the control of such surveillance tools ultimately remains in the hands of its maker, though the NSO Group has washed its hands of the malware's end use. The NSO Group's clients so far as Pegasus is concerned are different governments. And that should also be so if only because of the spyware's prohibitively high price. As such, until now, it is beyond the reach of the small terrorist groups, criminals and individuals. But as it happens with any technology, the cost of a product gradually comes down as competing groups begin to make similar tools. Simultaneously, the efficiency and power of such tools to penetrate security walls of various electronic communication systems also increase. Now the spyware is penetrating the iPhone's operating system. Cheaper, but more efficient next generation surveillance tools of similar kind in the hands of criminals or terrorists will be able to infiltrate the security networks of governments as well as big corporate houses. What is so futuristic today will become commonplace in the future.

It goes without saying that the present furore over Pegasus will act as an ad blitz for the Israeli spyware. Its popularity will definitely increase among many other governments willing to have the surveillance tool to meet their security needs. And so will tension grow among journalists, right activists, opposition politicians and people in high positions of those countries. And the days are not far off when such surveillance tools will be within the reach of regular people. Then no one will be safe from being spied on.


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