Pegasus, the Israeli spyware sold only to government agencies, has been accused of being used to monitor thousands of journalists and officials around the world.

The Israeli company NSO Group that sells Pegasus to multiple authoritarian governments worldwide admitted there had been nearly 50,000 phone numbers targeted, many of which are used by rights activists, journalists, ministers, opposition leaders, the legal community, business people, government officials, scientists, and others, according to The Wire.

By conducting their own forensic tests with 17 other media partners, the outlet discovered that most of the compromised individuals were from 10 countries: India, Azerbaijan, Bahrain, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Mexico, Morocco, Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates.

But in terms of the journalists, the hacked phone numbers belong to nearly 200 reporters from 21 countries worldwide. BBC noted some of the journalists who may have had their phones infiltrated came from multiple renowned media such as CNN, the New York Times, Al Jazeera, and Agence France-Presse.

The spyware particularly allows the attacker to read all content on the intercepted phone, such as messages from apps with end-to-end encryption, photographs, and GPS location data, BBC revealed. It can even secretly switch on an audio or video recorder without the owner’s notice. 

This latest scandal came just two weeks after NSO released their first “transparency report” on human rights policies and pledges. The 32-page report has been deemed a “sales brochure” by Amnesty International.

NSO was sued by Whatsapp in 2019, following allegations that the company was sending malware to 1,400 of its users over a two-week period and targeting their mobile phones. In 2020, a judge had ruled the lawsuit against the Israeli company could proceed. 

The Guardian suggested that Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, has been employing Pegasus in a war against journalists and “the country’s last remaining independent media owners.”

Among the many individuals that the outlet named was Zoltán Varga, owner of the biggest independent news site in Hungary, who is occasionally pressured to give up on his news media but never conceded.

Varga learned that his phone had been infected with Pegasus only after a friend of his who worked for the government referenced the content of a private meeting that involved Varga and six other friends. 

The conversation they had was about forming a new foundation that would “investigate and expose corruption among Hungary’s ruling elite.”

As Varga’s friend, who should not have known anything about the meeting, told him that such an event could pose him “dangerous,” that Varga suspected Orbán might have found a way to monitor that day’s gathering. 

Varga was not wrong, after forensic analysis, he found out all the seven men’s phones, including his were infected with Pegasus at the time. 

NSO defended that its spyware was sold to governments for assisting serious criminals and terrorists.

The Wire said the company had declined accusations of any wrongdoing, saying that the leaded database “may be part of a larger list of numbers that might have been used by NSO Group customers for other purposes.”

The company also refused the 50,000 number, claiming that the scope of surveillance by all the government clients can only be approximately 5,000 people each year. 

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