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NSO Group Targets Journalists

NSO Group, an organization named after their founders Niv, Shalev, and Omri, is an Israeli cyber-surveillance company that has been closely observed and criticized by the international community since 2016. The NSO’s  function is to assist the “government intelligence and law-enforcement agencies use [of] technology to meet the challenges of encryption” during situations to “prevent and investigate terrorism.” Although at face value the company shows constructive function, the organization was put under scrutiny during an incident in 2016 in which it was suspected that NSO’s software was utilized “against a rights activists in the United Arab Emirates and a journalist in Mexico” (Bergman and Kingsley, 2021).

Suspicion grew from this incident and markedly festered when a program by NSO known as Pegasus was discovered by a journalists consortium. The program was sold to Azerbaijan, India, and other countries such as Saudi Arabia whose government is associated with the assassination of a journalist in 2018. The The Washington Post Breaks down the function of Pegasus into three parts:

Target: Someone send’s what is known as a trap link to a smartphone that persuades the victim to tap and activate - or activates itself without any input, as in the most sophisticated “zero-clicks” hacks. 

Infect: The spyware captures and copies the phone’s most basic functions, NSO marketing materials show, recording from the cameras and microphone and collecting location data, call logs, and contacts. 

Track: The implant secretly reports that information to an operative who can use it to map out sensitive details of the victim’s life.

Despite the claim of the organization’s initiative being to deter terrorism and criminal acts, the apparent nonchalant worry associated with providing oppressive regimes with surveillance technology produces an alternative perspective. The extent of the information leaked was partially depicted on a list discovered by “Amnesty International, the human rights watchdog, and Forbidden Stories, a group that focuses on free speech” (Bergman and Kingsley, 2021) who would share the list with the journalists. According to one of the consortium members, the Washington Post, depicts “that 189 journalists, more than 600 politicians and government officials, at least 65 business executives, 85 human rights activists and several heads of state” were on the list.

Although the statistics and personnel of those listed does extend to journalists from CNN, editors from the The Financial Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, the general population being targeted consists of journalists, government leaders, oppositionists to governments and media representatives. This demographic is essential to remain independent from the negative subliminal coercive nature Pegasus produces in journalism and reporting. Journalism is essential for the foundation of any democracy and provides both stability and transparency to the events unfolding within communities. With Pegasus being able to infect devices without the user needing to interact with the program, there is a compromise to the security and safety journalists are generally able to promise witnesses and assailable citizens while also providing difficulty for oppositionists to effectively organize.

According to the Secretary General Agnés Callamard, “The Pegasus Project lays bare how NSOs’ spyware is a weapon of choice for repressive governments seeking to silence journalists, attack activists and crush dissent, placing countless lives in peril.” NSO’s natural function and Pegasus’s assistance to secure authoritarian governmental positions provoke fear in the public, not through stealing selective information, but the totality of information that exists on our devices. It extends beyond just the individual infected but any sense of confidentiality that exists with a private message from a friend to mere quotidian exchanges like writing down grocery lists or sending intimate messages. The audience being targeted highlights how Pegasus “... is used as a tool to intimidate critical media… controlling public narrative, resisting scrutiny, and suppressing any dissenting voice.” (The Associated Press, 2021)  

The international community is scrutinizing Israel’s response to managing NSO and the behavior of the organization itself as it continues to target journalists and unfavorable political positions. This scope of scrutiny is broader than that of Israel and the worry of the international community is summarized in an interview between a reporter for the French daily de Monde who was working on the Pegasus Project and the Hungarian Justice Minister Judit Varga.

“If someone asked you to tape a journalist or an opponent, you wouldn’t accept this?” 

“What a question!'' Vaga responded. “This is a provocation in itself.” A day later, her office requested that this question and her answer to it “be erased” from the interview. (Priest et al. 2021)

The transparency and foundation of journalism are essential for a government to remain secure and the press cable of upholding their necessary position as a watchdog on the government. Without the necessary elements of security and independence from the government’s control or view, the foundations of democracy are put into jeopardy. With the extent that Pegasus violates, it not only raises a personal intrusion of privacy without any contact being required, but it also raises questions on where the line for human rights and national constitutional laws for individual privacy is drawn. 


Associated Press, Probe: Journalists, Activists among Firm’s Spyware Targets, U.S. News, July 18th, 2021, 

Bergman Ronen, Kingsley Patrick, Spyware Report Brings Scrutiny to Israeli Firm,  New York Times,  July 2021, A10

Massive data leak reveals  Israeli  NSO’s Group’s spyware used to target activists, journalists, and political leaders globally, Amnesty International, July 2021, 

Pegg David et al. FT editor among 180 journalists identified by clients of spyware firm, The Guardian, July 2021, 

Priest Dana et al. Private Israeli Software used to hack cellphones of journalists, activists worldwide, Washington Post, July 2021, 

The Associated Press, Journalists, activists among firm’s spywares targets, nonprofits, say, NBC News July 2021, 

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