How the World Created the Pegasus Menace

If NSO is to be held responsible for how Pegasus is used, should knife makers be made responsible for how knives are used also?
Charles Makakala22 February 202216 min

On October 2, 2018, Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi, a Saudi journalist and the Arab world’s most famous political pundit, entered a Saudi consulate in Istanbul to pick up documents necessary for him to marry his Turkish fiancée, Hatice Cengiz. He was never to be seen alive ever again.

Khashoggi’s disappearance caused shockwaves around the world – forcing the Saudi ambassador in Turkey to issue a statement claiming that Khashoggi left the consulate immediately afterwards.

However, investigations conducted by Turkey, whose President Tayyip Erdogan was a close friend of Khashoggi, the CIA, and others, quickly established that a hit squad of 15 men reporting to Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, strangled Khashoggi, then dismembered and dissolved his body in acid.

A recording from within the consulate revealed that Khashoggi’s last words were the fateful “I can’t breathe.” That’s how he exited history.

Rights activists around the world called for blood, but Donald Trump, being mindful of billions of dollars of weapons contracts from the Saudis, had other ideas. While the Saudis prosecuted and convicted the culprits, they are quite likely living freely in isolated luxurious islands around the world right now.

But, how did the Saudis ensnare Khashoggi?

The story of Pegasus

A few months earlier, Omar Abdulaziz, one of Khashoggi’s close confidantes living in Canada, received a message that updated him about an order he had made online earlier that morning.

The text included an ‘exploit link’ associated with one of the domains used by Pegasus, futuristic spyware developed by an Israeli cyber-intelligence firm NSO Group. That was all it took for the Saudis to take control of his phone, getting access to all his frequent conversations with Khashoggi.

In the same way, several individuals in Khashoggi’s inner circle were placed under surveillance, thus giving the Saudis a 360 degrees perspective of all that was happening in Khashoggi’s life.

While it was not a secret that the Saudis were hunting Khashoggi, it was Pegasus that gave them a breakthrough. Named after a winged horse of Greek mythology, Pegasus can be sent ‘over the air’ to be installed on Android and iPhone devices.

Once installed, Pegasus can access the victim’s text messages, calls, passwords, location, and other apps. It can also surreptitiously use the device’s camera and microphone.

Pegasus’ novelty has effectively rendered nought all mobile cyber-security defenses in the world. It can break into devices and apps which were previously presumed to be unbreakable with great ease. Through a zero-click attack, for example, a simple WhatsApp missed call is enough to get in, often victims don’t need to do anything.

Following Khashoggi’s murder, NSO has come under increasing scrutiny, with critics questioning Pegasus’ deployment against journalists, activists, and opponents of authoritarian governments in the world. But Pegasus’ popularity has increased, with governments choosing to pay hefty fees to get their hands on Pegasus.

Israel’s dominant role in technology

Pegasus notoriety’s aside, it provides a powerful example of the increasingly dominant role the Israelis have in technology. This started two decades ago – a late 2000s’ report indicated that almost half of the top fifty software and technology companies on Forbes had acquired Israeli companies or had opened an R&D centre in Israel. The number is likely to be much higher today.

However, while many multinationals have offices in many nations, the work that they expect to be done in Israel is unlike what is done elsewhere. One American executive at eBay commented that, “[Whether it is] Google, Cisco, Microsoft, Intel, eBay – the best-kept secret is that we all live and die by the work of our Israeli teams.” In other words, what the Israelis do is mission-critical to those companies.

That raises the question – how did Israel become what she is today while fighting wars and facing a global boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement?

The answers are found in history.

Shortly after her independence, France became quite important for Israel’s supply of weapons systems. But when Algeria got its independence, the geopolitical equations changed.

So, when Gen. Charles de Gaulle reneged on the proffer of the much-needed tanks and fighter planes which Israel had already paid for, and instead offered them to Syria, Israel’s bitterest enemy, Israel concluded that it had to become more independent for its security.

Thus the beginning of the projects that led to the production of her own fighter planes (1973), tanks (1978), and the Lavi fighter jets (1986).

The Lavi jet was one of the world’s most advanced. However, for multiple reasons, the project was canceled. But that was not before the Israelis had demonstrated that they can match the world’s best in technology.

Moreover, following the cancellation, overnight, Lavi’s 1,500 world-class engineers were let loose across Israel. It is these professionals who launched Israel’s flourishing high-tech industry.

Necessity aside, it is also important to see how adversity contributed to Israel’s global technological leadership.

From the beginning, Israel’s numerous spats with its foes, state or non-state, taught the Israelis how invaluable surveillance systems were to combating terrorism.

Cyber-weapons training programs

In response, Israel developed highly selective advanced cyber-weapons training programs, such as Unit 8200, Mamram, and Talpiot, to develop appropriate solutions to those threats.

It is the graduates of those elite units who have made Israel’s current global leadership in cyber-intelligence possible.

In 2007, two executives of an unknown Israeli company went to make a pitch to PayPal to buy their company. The company’s name was Fraud Sciences, involved in the development of fraud detection systems. They were ex-members of Unit 8200.

PayPal, then the leading company in the field, didn’t think that that was going to be a fruitful endeavour, so it challenged the Israelis to analyse thousands of transactions that had taken PayPal five years to review knowing that they will never see them again.

The Israelis returned a few days later. After analysis, PayPal concluded that the Israelis were years ahead of PayPal and PayPal could not risk not getting a hand on the Israelis’ technology. Fraud Sciences was acquired for $169 million.

When asked how they managed to do what they did, Fraud Sciences founders said: “When you’ve been developing technology to find terrorists, when lots of innocent lives hang in the balance, then finding thieves is pretty simple.”

It is not surprising then that the most valuable staff out of 700 NSO’s employees are primarily graduates of Israel’s elite cyber-intelligence units, especially Unit 8200. These are the ones responsible for making Pegasus what it is today.

Then there is the BDS campaign

While the boycotting of Jewish products didn’t start with the state of Israel, it was greatly intensified with Israel’s independence. Nations created ‘boycott’ desks to ensure that Israel is isolated. The cost has been massive – up to $100 billion according to some estimates (2010).

To cope with that threat, Israel had to diversify away from goods that could easily be identified as coming from Israel to solutions whose origins could be obscured.

The outcomes were so powerful – it is very likely that even those who campaign for the boycotting of Israel are probably doing so using Israeli technologies! With every acquisition or R&D centre set in Israel, the world has simply become more dependent on the Israelis for technological innovation.

The story of modern Israel is the story of triumph over adversity of the highest order. The harder the rest of the world pressed, the more juice the Israelis produced. The infamous Pegasus is one of those products. Unfortunately, it is the Khashoggis of this world who end up getting the raw deal.

But, if NSO is to be held responsible for how Pegasus is used, should knife makers be made responsible for how knives are used also? The words of Mr Lazar, a gunmaker in Ian Fleming’s ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ may be pertinent here: ‘Mr. Bond, bullets do not kill. It is the finger that pulls the trigger (that kills).’

Something to think about.

Charles Makakala is a technology and management consultant based in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. He is available through makakalajr@yahoo.com. These are the writer’s own opinions and do not necessarily reflect the viewpoint of The Chanzo Initiative. Want to publish in this space? Contact our editors at editor@thechanzo.com for further inquiries.

Charles Makakala

One comment

  • kirati joseph

    24 February 2022 at 11:27 AM

    fact based content

    Reply

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