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- Gordon Corera
- Security Correspondent
News circulating that the Israeli electronic espionage program “Pegasus” may have been used to monitor journalists, activists and even political leaders confirms that the surveillance programs are now for sale.
The Israeli company “NSO Group” that produces this program denied this news and said its customers are being carefully evaluated.
It also indicates that advanced espionage techniques, previously reserved for just a few countries, are now more widespread and go far beyond what we know about privacy and security in the online world.
In the recent past, if the security forces wanted to know what they were doing, it would have taken quite some effort to get it done.
The security authorities may have had to get permission to wiretap your phone or implant a chip in your home, or send a team to check you.
Knowing who to contact and how to spend your day-to-day life used to require patience and time.
Now, just about everything they want to know, like our conversations, places we’ve been, who we’ve met, and even our interests, is all in a device that we always carry with us.
Your phone can be accessed remotely without anyone touching it and without realizing that your sweet digital assistant has become a spy for someone else.
Previously, having remote phone access was something only a few countries could do. But advanced espionage and surveillance capabilities are now in the hands of many countries and even individuals and small groups.
Former US security officer Edward Snowden revealed in 2013 the capabilities of US and UK intelligence agencies to wiretap global communications.
Those agencies have always emphasized that their capabilities are subject to the mandate and oversight of a democratic state. The mandates were rather weak at the time, but have since been strengthened.
Israel has always been a first-class cyberpower with advanced surveillance capabilities. Its companies, such as the “NSO Group”, founded by veterans of the intelligence community, have been among the companies commercializing these technologies.
NSO Group says it sells its spyware only for use against dangerous criminals and terrorists. But the problem is how to define these categories.
The most authoritarian states often claim that journalists, dissidents and human rights activists are criminals or a threat to national security, making them targets of persecution and oversight by the authorities.
In many of these countries, there is little or no responsibility and control over how these advanced technologies are used.
The spread of encryption has increased governments’ push to hack into personal phones.
When telephone calls were the primary means of communication, a telecom company could be asked to eavesdrop on the conversation (which previously meant attaching wires to a telephone line).
But now conversations are often encrypted, meaning you need access to the device itself to find out what’s inside and what the owner is doing, and the devices provide an even more informative treasure trove.
Countries sometimes come up with clever ways to do this. A recent example of this is a joint operation between the United States and Australia in which criminal gangs were given phones that they thought were very safe, but which were hacked by the security services with the aim of collecting information about criminals.
But the problems in this area are bigger than phone spyware. Other more sophisticated spying capabilities are spreading rapidly, even internet company disruptors are now easily accessible.
Previously, ransomware, where hackers demanded money to stop hacking into your electronic device, was the domain of criminal networks, now it is freely sold on the dark web.
An individual can simply make a deal to give them a share of the profits and they will provide the software and even provide support and advice including helplines in case of problems.
Other technologies such as location tracking and the development of profiles of people’s activity and behavior that previously required special hacking tools and authorization are now freely available.
Surveillance is no longer limited to governments, but also companies that track us, not by posting spyware per se, but by what is known as economic espionage where companies monitor what we like on social media to better market sellers what we’re looking for.
Ultimately, a large amount of data is collected for companies to use, but it can be stolen by electronic thieves (hackers) and countries can also benefit from it.
Some of these technologies are freely available for sale.
There are other types of spyware that skeptics and skeptics who want to check the whereabouts of their relatives look for.
Are we about to enter a world where we can all become spies, but we can all become spies at the same time?
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