Pegasus is spyware that can be installed on devices running some versions of iOS, Apple's mobile operating system, as well on devices running Android. It was developed by the Israeli cyberarms firm NSO Group.
Discovered in August 2016 after a failed attempt at installing it on an iPhone belonging to a human rights activist, an investigation revealed details about the spyware, its abilities, and the security vulnerabilities it exploited. Pegasus is capable of reading text messages, tracking calls, collecting passwords, mobile phone tracking, accessing the target device's microphone(s) and video camera(s), and gathering information from apps.
Apple released version 9.3.5 of its iOS software to fix the vulnerabilities. News of the spyware caused significant media coverage. It was called the "most sophisticated" smartphone attack ever, and became the first time in iPhone history when a malicious remote jailbreak exploit had been detected. The company that created the spyware, NSO Group, stated that they provide "authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime".
On 23 August 2020, according to intelligence obtained by the israeli newspaper Haaretz, the NSO Group was accused of selling Pegasus spyware software for hundreds of millions of dollars to the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf States, for the purpose of state surveillance against anti-regime activists, journalists and political leaders from rival nations.
Al Jazeera investigation show The Tip of the Iceberg, Spy partners, in 20 Dec 2020, showed exclusive footage about "Pegasus", and its penetration into the phones of media professionals and activists, used by Israel to eavesdrop on its opponents and even its allies.
Details of spywareEdit
Pegasus is the name of a spyware that can be installed on devices running certain versions of iOS, Apple's mobile operating system. Upon clicking on a malicious link, Pegasus secretly enables a jailbreak on the device and can read text messages, track calls, collect passwords, trace the phone location, as well as gather information from apps including (but not limited to) iMessage, Gmail, Viber, Facebook, WhatsApp, Telegram, and Skype.
Discovery of spywareEdit
The vulnerabilities were found ten days before the iOS 9.3.5 update was released. Arab human rights defender Ahmed Mansoor received a text message promising "secrets" about torture happening in prisons in the United Arab Emirates", along with a link which is a form of social engineering. Mansoor sent the link to Citizen Lab. An investigation ensued with the collaboration of Lookout that revealed that if Mansoor had followed the link, it would have jailbroken his phone on the spot and implanted the spyware into it. Citizen Lab linked the attack to a private Israeli spyware company known as NSO Group, that sells Pegasus to governments for "lawful interception", but suspicions exist that it is applied for other purposes. NSO Group was owned by an American private equity firm, Francisco Partners, before being bought back by the founders in 2019.
Regarding how widespread the issue was, Lookout explained in a blog post: "We believe that this spyware has been in the wild for a significant amount of time based on some of the indicators within the code" and pointed out that the code shows signs of a "kernel mapping table that has values all the way back to iOS 7". The New York Times and The Times of Israel have both reported that it appears the United Arab Emirates was using this spyware as early as 2013.
Several outstanding lawsuits claim that NSO Group helped clients operate the software and therefore participated in numerous violations of human rights initiated by its clients. Two months after the murder and dismemberment of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi human rights activist, in the Saudi Arabian Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey, Saudi dissident Omar Abdulaziz, a Canadian resident, filed suit in Israel against NSO Group, accusing the firm of providing the Saudi government with the surveillance software to spy on him and his friends, including Khashoggi. According to the Washington Post and other prominent media sources, Pegasus not only enables the keystroke monitoring of all communications from a phone (texts, emails, web searches) but it also enables phone call and location tracking, while also permitting NSO Group to hijack both the mobile phone's microphone and camera, thus turning it into a constant surveillance device.
Scandal in IndiaEdit
In late 2019, Facebook initiated a suit against NSO, claiming that WhatsApp had been used to hack a number of activists in India, leading to accusations that the Indian government was involved.
Use by Mexican drug cartelsEdit
Pegasus has been used to target and intimidate Mexican journalists by drug cartels and cartel-entwined government actors.
Lookout provided details of the three vulnerabilities:
- CVE-2016-4655: Information leak in Kernel – A kernel base mapping vulnerability that leaks information to the attacker allowing them to calculate the kernel's location in memory.
- CVE-2016-4656: Kernel Memory corruption leads to Jailbreak – 32 and 64 bit iOS kernel-level vulnerabilities that allow the attacker to secretly jailbreak the device and install surveillance software - details in reference.
- CVE-2016-4657: Memory corruption in the Webkit – A vulnerability in the Safari WebKit that allows the attacker to compromise the device when the user clicks on a link.
News of the spyware received significant media attention, particularly for being called the "most sophisticated" smartphone attack ever, and, for being the first time in iPhone history when a remote jailbreak exploit has been detected.
NSO Group commentEdit
Dan Tynant of The Guardian wrote an article that featured comments from NSO Group, where they stated that they provide "authorized governments with technology that helps them combat terror and crime", although the Group told him that they had no knowledge of any incidents.
Bug-bounty program skepticismEdit
In the aftermath of the news, critics asserted that Apple's bug-bounty program, which rewards people for finding flaws in its software, might not have offered sufficient rewards to prevent exploits being sold on the black market, rather than being reported back to Apple. Russell Brandom of The Verge commented that Apple's bug-bounty program, which rewards people who manage to find faults in its software, maxes out at payments of $200,000, "just a fraction of the millions that are regularly spent for iOS exploits on the black market". He goes on to ask why Apple doesn't "spend its way out of security vulnerabilities?", but also writes that "as soon as [the Pegasus] vulnerabilities were reported, Apple patched them—but there are plenty of other bugs left. While spyware companies see an exploit purchase as a one-time payout for years of access, Apple’s bounty has to be paid out every time a new vulnerability pops up." Brandom also wrote; "The same researchers participating in Apple’s bug bounty could make more money selling the same finds to an exploit broker." He concluded the article by writing; "It’s hard to say how much damage might have been caused if Mansoor had clicked on the spyware link... The hope is that, when the next researcher finds the next bug, that thought matters more than the money."
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- "'It's a free-for-all': how hi-tech spyware ends up in the hands of Mexico's cartels".
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