Israel uses Pegasus spyware to track hostages in Gaza

Israel’s security services have enlisted espionage firms, including the manufacturer of the controversial software, Pegasus, to aid in tracking hostages within the Gaza sector. Pegasus, designed for mobile device surveillance, often faces scrutiny due to potential privacy infringements.

The NSO Group, an Israeli enterprise, specializes in crafting and marketing software dedicated to targeted observation and mobile device intrusion. Their creation, Pegasus, has the capability to stealthily install itself on mobile phones and other devices operating on most versions of iOS and Android. This software permits the reading of text messages, call monitoring, password gathering, device location tracking, and even access to the microphone and camera of the target device, amassing information from various applications. Pegasus was unearthed in August 2016, post its installation attempt on the iPhone of human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. This incident led to an investigation, revealing the software’s capabilities and the security vulnerabilities it exploited.

In the past, Pegasus spyware has been leveraged to compromise the mobile devices of journalists, human rights defenders, and diplomats. In October 2019, WhatsApp accused the NSO Group of utilizing Pegasus to breach over 1,400 users across 20 countries. By December 2020, reports emerged of Pegasus compromising 36 journalists from Al Jazeera. In January 2021, it was revealed that Pegasus was deployed to infiltrate the phone of Moroccan journalist Omar Radi, who was subsequently sentenced to six years’ imprisonment on charges of espionage and contempt of court after she exposed government corruption within Morocco.

The NSO Group faced international sanctions due to allegations of human rights violations, particularly linked to the application of their software to surveil journalists, human rights activists, and political advocates. Nevertheless, Israel perceives this technology as a potent tool to augment their counter-terrorism efforts and safeguard their populace.

According to four cybersecurity industry sources and an Israeli government representative, both the NSO Group and Candiru are being urged to swiftly enhance their espionage software capabilities to meet the country’s security demands. Together with several other spyware developers, they offer their services pro bono. The publication Haaretz also reported that, since mid-October, Israel has been employing surveillance programs in the quest to locate hostages. This initiative has also roped in companies such as Rayzone, Paragon, Cobwebs, ActiveFence, and a few others. While typically these firms do not collaborate due to specialization differences or rivalry, in recent days, they have united their endeavors for a shared purpose.

During the operation, the whereabouts of several hostages were ascertained, facilitating the Israeli military forces to engage in negotiations with Hamas concerning their release. Israel’s inclination to harness the technology of the NSO Group underscores the intricate interplay between the imperatives of security and the sanctity of individual privacy in today’s world.

The deployment of the Pegasus spyware for such purposes ignites spirited debates within society regarding the equilibrium between human rights and national security.