By Martin Untersinger and Damien Leloup

Posted today at 05:59, updated at 06:08

Seen from the outside, the phone looks perfectly normal. Notifications light up the screen, while exchanges pile up in messaging apps. Calls are perfectly audible, Internet browsing is smooth and the camera works. There is no indication that an ultra-sophisticated spyware is surreptitiously breaking into the phone to take control of it. This stealth is the main advantage of a new kind of digital weapon, spyware called Pegasus.

The Forbidden Stories consortium of journalists and Amnesty International were able to consult more than 50,000 phone numbers selected as potential targets of this malware, on behalf of several states, and shared it with 16 media outlets, including The world. Among these targets, it is not members of terrorist groups or criminal organizations that dominate, but lawyers, journalists, activists, not to mention heads of state, diplomats and senior intelligence officials, from fifty countries.

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Once inserted into a smartphone, be it an iPhone or an Android, Pegasus does not only allow you to listen to calls made and received by the phones it infects. In the era of encrypted messaging, wiretapping offered only a relative interest. The software goes much further, allowing to absorb all the content of a phone: photos, emails, contacts, SMS, and even messages exchanged through secure applications such as Signal or WhatsApp. It also has some James Bond-style features, such as the ability to remotely activate the phone’s microphone.

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Unlike most cyber surveillance tools, Pegasus was neither designed by an isolated hacker nor by agents of a Russian, American or Chinese spy service. It is the flagship product of a private company, NSO Group, which the latter has already sold to around 40 states around the world. This Israeli company – the investigation by The world and Forbidden Stories demonstrates that it has put in the hands of unscrupulous states a corrosive tool for human rights -, has established itself in a few years as the figurehead of the top secret digital surveillance industry .

Elite hackers

NSO is above all the story of “N”, “S”, and “O”, for Niv Carmi, Shalev Hulio and Omri Lavie, its three co-founders. When they created the company in 2009, they were a long way from digital surveillance. Their start-up is developing a technology capable of recognizing objects in a video and offering the viewer a link to purchase them.

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